Visibly weakened following a hunger strike in prison yet full of his usual verve, Alexei Navalny appeared before a court via videoconference on April 29 to appeal his fine for the defamation of a World War II veteran just as branches of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) were being shuttered across Russia. This is but the latest installment of the Kremlin’s campaign to increase pressure on Russia’s civil society and opposition.
On August 20, 2020, Navalny was hospitalized in the Siberian city of Omsk after falling ill during a flight to Moscow following what appeared to be a poisoning attempt. After a standoff with the Russian authorities, Navalny was finally airlifted to a hospital in Berlin, where his poisoning was officially confirmed. The substance was identified as the nerve agent Novichok, a Soviet-era chemical weapon. The use of Novichok inspired calls for further investigations from international figures and (mostly Western) governments.
A joint investigation by Bellingcat, CNN, Der Spiegel and the Insider “has discovered voluminous telecom and travel data that implicates” the FSB in Navalny’s poisoning. As the report states, “the August 2020 poisoning in the Siberian city of Tomsk appears to have happened after years of surveillance, which began in 2017 shortly after Navalny first announced his intention to run for president of Russia.” Moreover, Bellingcat released a recording in which Konstantin Kudryavtsev, an FSB officer, unintentionally confesses the details of the operation to Navalny himself, who phoned Kudryavtsev under the disguise of a high-ranking security official.
How Alexei Navalny Created Russia’s Main Opposition Platform
Once he recovered in Germany, Navalny flew back to Russia on January 17, but was detained immediately after landing. Following his arrest, he was charged with breaking the probationary terms of a previous prison sentence, which required Navalny to periodically report to Russian authorities. Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail, triggering a public outcry and mass protests across Russia.
In prison and in failing health, on March 31, Navalny began a hunger strike demanding medical treatment by independent doctors. On April 23, he ended the hunger strike on its 24th day after consultation with non-prison medical staff. However, despite the bad publicity and an international outcry the case has engendered, the Kremlin remains unmoved by growing calls for the release of President Vladimir Putin’s potential political adversary.
The poisoning of Alexei Navalny has once again highlighted the cracks in relations between Russia and the West. Last year, the National Security Council stated that it will “work with allies and the international community to hold those in Russia accountable, wherever the evidence leads, and restrict funds for their malign activities.” In response to Russia’s use of Novichok, the United States enacted additional economic sanctions, in addition to steps taken against Moscow for its interference in the 2016 presidential election. Officially announced by the State Department on March 2, these sanctions bring together Washington and the European Union in their condemnation of the attempted assassination and imprisonment of one of Russia’s key opposition figures.
As stated by US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, “The U.S. government has exercised its authorities to send a clear signal that Russia’s use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences. Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms.” The actions taken by Washington include an expansion of previous sanctions under the US Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991 as well as measures in accordance with Executive Order 13382, which target proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act has been used against various Russian individuals and adversaries with connection to Russia’s chemical weapons program as well as defense and intelligence sectors.
The United States is not the only country expressing its disapproval for the actions of the Russian government. Last year, after German officials said they had “unequivocal proof” of Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok, Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that there are “serious questions that only the Russian government can and must answer.” Similarly, after laboratories in France and Sweden confirmed the use of the nerve agent, French President Emmanuel Macron released a statement urging President Putin to provide information on the “attempted murder.”
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson also expressed his concern. The attempted poisoning of Navalny has parallels with the attack on the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Then, Novichok first came to international prominence but also failed to kill the intended victim. Johnson publicly condemned Navalny’s sentencing in February, joining Merkel, Macron, the European Parliament and the US in calling for his immediate release.
The Kremlin Stands its Ground
The Kremlin denies the allegations that it was behind the attack on Navalny. In his most recent annual address to the nation, President Putin reprimanded the West for its treatment of Russia and warned of possible consequences. The warnings centered around crossing a red line drawn by Moscow and came right after the US announced its newest round of sanctions. As Putin stated in the address, “Russia has its own interests, which we will defend in line with the international law. If somebody refuses to understand this obvious thing, is reluctant to conduct a dialogue and chooses a selfish and arrogant tone, Russia will always find a way to defend its position.”
Additionally, the Russian president revived the accusation of a US-backed plot to assassinate Alexander Lukashenko, the besieged Belarusian leader who largely owes his tenuous position to Kremlin support in face of mass protests following a disputed election last year. However, no concrete evidence of either the plot itself or any involvement of Western governments has presented itself despite the claims made by Lukashenko himself. Although Navalny was not explicitly mentioned during Putin’s address, implications were made that the country’s opposition movement is part of the Western strategy to destabilize Russia — a familiar refrain in the Kremlin.
The sanctions imposed by the United States are similar to past rounds put in place after the poisoning of the Skripals, demonstrating a continuity with previous disputes and attesting to the fact that the Kremlin’s behavior is largely unaltered by international outrage. Similarly unsuccessful have been the calls by leading academics, scholars and Nobel laureates both in and outside Russia urging the Kremlin to end its practices of persecuting political opponents.
While ignoring international pressure, the Kremlin is ramping up domestic repression. One target is Navalny’s FBK, which prosecutors labeled as an extremist organization and ordered it to shut down. On April 30, Ivan Pavlov, a human rights lawyer representing Navalny’s foundation, was detained by the FSB. According to his organization, Komanda 29 (Team 29), Pavlov was charged with the “disclosure of materials of the preliminary investigation.”
Independent media has also been increasingly targeted. Meduza, which has been publishing out of Latvia since its editor-in-chief left Russia in 2014, has recently been designated as a foreign agent. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, an independent nonprofit corporation that receives funding from US Congress, has also been threatened. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulator, has fined RFE/RL up to $1 million for hundreds of violations of the foreign agent law.
Meanwhile, Washington has stated that discussions are still ongoing for a possible meeting between presidents Biden and Putin, which may be a good opportunity for the new occupant of the White House to turn up the pressure on Moscow. All in all, neither Alexei Navalny’s popularity nor Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism are likely to catalyze immediate systemic changes either in the power dynamics in Moscow or vis-à-vis the West.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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