On 20 August, prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalnyi collapsed on board a commercial flight, causing it to make an emergency landing in Omsk. Navalnyi’s condition had changed suddenly and violently during the flight and the aircraft captain’s swift decision probably saved his life. His family, friends and supporters immediately—and with good reason—suspected that he had been poisoned.
Navalnyi is just 44 and was in good health. An ordinary cup of tea at a café in Tomsk Airport could not have knocked him unconscious and brought him to the verge of death.
The poisoning of a Kremlin critic should not be seen as an extraordinary event. Mikhail Khodorkovski is in exile. Boris Nemtsov was shot dead five years ago. Navalnyi is presently the only prominent choice for Russians who do not support the so-called ‘collective Putin’. He has been attacked with chemicals and poisons on several occasions. For example, in 2017 several men threw antiseptic in his face, luckily causing only temporary damage to one eye. And last year, while routinely imprisoned on fabricated charges, he was rushed from prison to hospital with a severe allergic reaction.
Kremlin agents have also been responsible for numerous other high-profile poisonings, including Anna Politkovskaya in 2004 (she was murdered two years later), Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, Vladimir Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017, Pussy Riot’s Pyotr Verzilov in 2018, and the Novichok attacks against Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March 2018. It was Verzilov who, upon hearing the news about Navalnyi, immediately requested an air ambulance for him from the Berlin-based non-profit Cinema for Peace. Verzilov himself had been evacuated to Germany in a similar manner in 2018.
The German medical team that arrived in Omsk on 20 August determined that Navalnyi was stable enough to fly. However, Russian doctors only gave their consent the following day, after claiming that there were no traces of poisoning whatsoever. Navalnyi’s wife, as well as German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron, appealed to Putin to allow Navalnyi to be treated in Germany.
On 24 August, doctors at the Charité hospital in Berlin established that Navalnyi had been poisoned with a yet to be determined active cholinesterase inhibitor substance and he was put into an induced coma. His condition is serious. There is currently no immediate danger to his life, but long-term effects cannot be ruled out. Navalnyi’s poisoning is thus no longer just a suspicion, but a confirmed medical fact, even if Russia—as would be expected—vehemently disagrees. The Russian doctors in Omsk had no choice but to deny the poisoning, and are probably relieved to have got rid of both the patient and the FSB.
Nevertheless important questions remain. What were Russia’s calculations and expectations in carrying out this attack? Were the Kremlin and the FSB convinced that Navalnyi’s poisoning would not be unequivocally detected by German doctors, or did they simply not care? The probable answer is that the handing over of Navalnyi to Germany was meant to demonstrate that the Kremlin and FSB had nothing to do with the incident, and thus nothing to hide. This could be a new and rather clever Kremlin tactic—although it is clearly not smart enough to fool the sceptical Western (and Russian) public.
Furthermore, Navalnyi has become, at least temporarily, a Russian expat. While he is recovering in Germany, the Kremlin has ample opportunity to present new indictments against him. Upon his eventual return to Russia, he could face immediate arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on new criminal charges. This would be a win-win situation for the collective Putin, as Navalnyi would either stay in the West as a ‘criminal’ evading justice, or return and be immediately imprisoned.
The timing of Navalnyi’s poisoning also offers some indications of the Kremlin’s goals. Navalnyi had openly supported the protesters in Belarus and backed the weeks-long demonstrations in Khabarovsk. The Kremlin probably felt that it had to send the people of both Russia and Belarus a new forceful message of intimidation—that the opposition and protests have no chance against the established dictatorial power, armed forces and security services.
‘Operation Navalnyi’ is a medical operation only in that it can save Alexei Navalnyi’s life and offer him the best possible recovery. Otherwise, it is a purely political business on a grand scale that began with the permanent surveillance of Navalnyi by the FSB before he was poisoned. This drama will continue in the coming weeks and months. Moscow is likely to become more aggressive if the situation in Belarus gets out of its control or protests spread in Russia itself. Let us hope that the health and determination of Alexei Navalnyi, and the Russian and Belarusian opposition, are strong enough.