There are some things Vladimir Putin just can’t abide. Threatening personal financial assets and seeking to undermine the entire house of cards Putin and his cronies have built are two of those things.
Although Putin has never had much love for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Russian leadership had largely managed to contain Navalny’s impact through quasi-legal methods and subtle intimidation. That changed last month, when Navalny became ill after drinking tea in Siberia. His supporters immediately suspected poison, but Russian police found no reason for investigation and dismissed the claims.
Then, after he was airlifted to Berlin, German doctors stated Navalny “may have been poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor, a substance found in nerve toxins such as the one used in the attempted poisoning of a former Russian double agent in England in 2018.”
Russia denied the accusations and disparaged the German physicians.
The moral of the story is the same as it has been for years: don’t poke the (Russian) bear. Putin will allow a certain amount of criticism, but there are some areas that are off-limits.
Some of the reasons for the Kremlin to poison Navalny include his dogged determination to root out corruption by Putin and his associates. This touched a nerve with the Russian leader, who is rumored to have squirreled away at least $200 billion, and his loyalists are very well compensated for their service. Navalny also was an outspoken critic of the entire system, and as he gained respect and as his message resonated, he became a very real problem for the leadership.
The second problem for Navalny was the unrest in Belarus. One thing Putin hates is public discontent, and street protests in a former Soviet Republic over a less-than-transparent election fall outside what Putin sees as acceptable.
What Putin needed was to silence the tenacious Navalny and to send a message to the opposition that he is still in control. Critics beware.
While it is tempting to see Putin as the evil doer-of-all-bad-deeds, he represents a system in Russia that has built an autocratic kleptocracy that rewards top leaders. A threat to Putin is a threat to the system. The Putin-cabal understands that if Vladmir Putin is forced out, they will also go, and a new system will replace the current one. Therefore, the goal is to maintain Putin – and the Putin system – and to protect it at all costs.
The iron control wielded by the leadership will prevent any actual investigation of the Navalny poisoning. Moscow will simply continue to deny any involvement – and may instead blame its favorite targets including other opposition leaders or the West – and no one will prove otherwise.
Meanwhile, the political opposition in Russia will hear the message loud and clear: You can play around the edges, but don’t threaten the system. And if Putin and his backers take action against you, there will be no repercussion. The system will simply continue, and critics will mysteriously fall ill after enjoying tea in Siberia or after accidentally running into a poison-tipped umbrella; or they will be gunned down in the streets and their killers will never face arrest.
The system won’t allow it.