Navalny's Poisoning: Don't Jump to Conclusions
On Wednesday, September 2, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced with “unequivocal” certainty that President Putin’s critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent that lingers in the body and inflicts an array of debilitating symptoms. This announcement came two weeks after Navalny was admitted to a Russian hospital after experiencing severe sickness on a flight to Moscow from suspected poisoning. Following massive international pressure to move him out of Russia, Navalny was flown to a German hospital, where he remains in a coma.
Due to the history and nature of Novichok — used to take out prominent Putin critics in the past — the international community has ordered Russia to offer an explanation, with many countries concluding that the Kremlin was behind this attack. In their reasoning, since only top-level officials have access to this poison, it is easy to blame the Russian government for orchestrating the poisoning. With Navalny’s long-standing history of investigating corruption of high-level Kremlin officials and playing a role in regional and national politics, he stands as an outspoken renegade fighting against Putin’s undemocratic practices and grip on Russia. The repeated assassination and imprisonment of political opponents over the last couple of decades further supports this conclusion — Navalny may be one of the many victims of Russia’s campaign against political detractors. Although Russia’s long history of removing critics may indicate Putin’s involvement in Navalny’s poisoning, Russia would not risk losing its geopolitical position to eliminate an unthreatening actor.
In cases like these — which have the potential to unravel years of diplomatic progress and fan the flames of global animosity — one must carefully examine the situation before making generalized conclusions. Very often, Western media quickly jumps to blame Russia in cases like this without studying the evidence.
Let’s start from the beginning: why would Putin poison Navalny? If one were to look at the costs and benefits of Navalny’s death for Putin and the Russian government, one would see that the costs far outweigh the benefits for Putin to make such a reckless decision. First of all, Navalny is barred from ever participating in a Russian election — due to corruption charges that may or may not be true — and is not a high-ranking member of any significant political party. The media’s portrayal of Navalny as a popular opposition leader may not necessarily be accurate — a 2019 poll showed that only 9% of Russians hold a favorable view of Navalny. Why would Putin risk Russia’s international reputation, further alienate the country from the world, and risk economic sanctions to eliminate an unpopular politician that does not pose a threat to his power? Why would Putin undermine his efforts of strengthening political and economic relations with the West with an ill-planned murder that makes him a prime suspect? The math does not compute.
Furthermore, the media may portray the political situation in Russia as a two-sided battleground where Putin and his allies are standing on one side and his opposition on another, indiscriminately portraying the Kremlin as the “bad guys” and his rivals as the “good guys.” However, this is not the case. While Western media focuses on the tensions between Putin and his opposition (i.e. Putin vs. Navalny), Russian politics is much more complicated than this basic duality. Navalny has involved himself in controversial movements within Russia, being part of the ultra-nationalist group known as “The People” and has advocated for the mass removal of ethnic populations in Russia, including the Georgians. He co-organized the “Russia March,” a demonstration of Russian nationalism that many have condemned as xenophobic, and has spoken out against federally subsidizing the Caucuses. During his political career, Navalny has accrued many enemies; thus, the West maintaining President Putin as the only suspect demonstrates either a willful agenda or ignorance of basic Russian political knowledge. Yet another aspect of Navalny’s poisoning stands out: the timing of it. One might consider the current era as a “crossroads” in the improvement of relations between Russia and the West — and Putin’s opposition might have orchestrated Navalny’s poisoning to divert this progress. With the Nord Stream 2 pipeline on the verge of being finished, economically connecting Russia and Germany, this poisoning might have been a desperate measure to stall this economic cooperation by sowing mistrust between Russia and Germany. Additionally, Trump had previously agreed to meet with Putin in September at the General Assembly meeting, which he may cancel due to the allegations against Putin. In general, many groups, such as Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, in and outside of Russia seek to impede dialogue and diplomatic progress between Russia and the West. They may have carried out Navalny’s poisoning to attain this goal.
What should Russia do now? The best course of action is cooperation: Putin must order a full investigation into Navalny’s poisoning to determine the sequence of events leading up to and the perpetrators of this crime. The worst route is indifference — downplaying Navalny’s case and rejecting Merkel’s claims of poisoning will undoubtedly exacerbate Russia’s image and standing on the world’s stage. Russia has spent the last six years after the Ukraine conflict broke out slowly forging stronger relations with the West; instead of letting Navalny’s case poison Russia’s relations with the world, Russia can maintain trust with the international community by cooperating to determine the culprits behind this treachery which has stained Russian-Western relations for the worse.