German authorities announced on Wednesday that there was now ‘unequivocal proof’ that Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition figure who collapsed on an internal Russian flight last month and was subsequently flown to Berlin for treatment, had been poisoned by the nerve agent, novichok. Few people had doubted that Mr Navalny had been poisoned, but the confirmation that novichok was the poison seemed to point the finger unambiguously at who was responsible for the poisoning: the Kremlin. That’s because novichok isn’t any old poison but a military-grade weapon that only the Russian state or those close to it has access to. The West has promptly reacted in a united chorus of outrage. But that, so far, is all it has done and many people believe that, as with many other Russian actions condemned by the West, such as the takeover of Crimea and more recently President Putin’s support for the authoritarian regime in neighbouring Belarus, the West will prove itself to be all talk and no action. So is Vladimir Putin running rings round the West and, if so, what if anything should we do about it?
Alexei Navalny is the sharpest thorn in Vladimir Putin’s flesh. Through a series of videos disseminated through YouTube about corruption in the Kremlin and among those closest to the Putin regime he has attracted a huge following among ordinary Russians and rallied a nascent opposition which the regime sees increasingly as a threat. He has also organised a campaign of tactical voting against Mr Putin’s party and it was on such a campaign trip to Siberia that he was poisoned on 20 August.
His supporters immediately claimed it was a state assassination attempt, the final throw after years of official harrasment and serial imprisonment had failed to put an end to Mr Navalny’s campaigning. The Kremlin already had form, his supporters argued, in trying to kill off its opponents, as the shooting of the former Russian prime minister, Boris Nemtsov in full sight of the Kremlin back in 2015 demonstrated. The Russian government denied any involvement in Mr Navalny’s fate, of course, and Russian doctors, who initially tried to prevent him from being flown abroad for treatment, claimed there was no evidence at all he had even been poisoned. His supporters, however, did manage to get him to Berlin where, in an induced coma, he is being treated and where the diagnosis of poisoning by novichok was confirmed.
Novichok, a group of syntheticaly-produced nerve agents, was first developed in a laboratory in Uzbekistan in the closing years of the Soviet Union and is believed to have been refined since by the Russian government into a hard-to-detect assassination weapon. It was novichok that was shown to have been used in the attempted assassination of the former Russian agent and defector, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018 and which killed Dawn Sturgess, a British woman who inadvertently handed the discarded perfume bottle in which it had been contained. Russia has always denied any involvement.
It is not only the use of novichok that points the finger at the Russian government in the case of Mr Navalny’s poisoning. The Kremlin also has a clear motivation, it’s argued. It’s claimed that Mr Putin and his circle have become increasingly alarmed by the popular uprising against the authoritarian regime in next-door Belarus, following the highly-disputed re-election last month of its president, Alexander Lukashenko. The fear is that such unrest could spread to Russia itself. Indeed it already has in the far-eastern city of Kharbarovsk, where the arrest of a popular governor elected in opposition to Mr Putin’s party, sparked huge demonstrations against the Kremlin. Opposition figures in Khabarovsk and the Belarus capital, Minsk, have been coordinating their protests. By escalating its harassment of Mr Navalny to the level of attempted assassination, the Kremlin, it’s claimed, wanted to send a message to all potential opponents that that would be their fate too.
The West has been united at least in its spoken response. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said: ‘I condemn this in the strongest terms. We expect the Russian government to make a statement about the incident. … It raises serious questions that only the Russian government can answer. And it will have to answer them.’ The European Union demanded a ‘transparent’ investigation by the Russian government, adding that ‘those responsible must be brought to justice’. Boris Johnson echoed them both: ‘The Russian government must now explain what happened to Mr Navalny – we will work with international partners to ensure justice is done’.
But to many observers all this is just hot air, and laughable hot air at that. Nowhere will the laughter be louder, they claim, than in the Kremlin. For the Putin regime has already made perfectly plain its line that Mr Navalny’s collapse was nothing to do with them, there is nothing to investigate, and no one – or at least not in Russia – who needs to be brought to justice. The brazenness of their denials was perhaps best illustrated by the remark of Andrey Lugovoy, the man accused by Britain of killing the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, by radioactive polonium in London in 2006, and who is now an ally of Mr Putin in the Russian parliament. Mr Lugovoy speculated that Mr Navalny had been poisoned with novichok only after he had arrived in Germany. ‘I’m sure that’s exactly what happened,’ he said. As the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, Sarah Rainsford, remarked, all the West can expect from the Kremlin in response to its calls for full investigations and culprits brought to justice is the familiar litany of ‘deny, obfuscate, demand for proof’.
So it’s more than just empty and futile demands that critics of the West’s response are looking for. And it’s not just in relation to the attempt on Mr Navalny’s life. Mr Putin’s declared intention to come to the aid of President Lukashenko in Belarus, including the use of force, if necessary, has provoked those critics to insist on a much more muscular response on behalf of the protesting people of Belarus whose rights are being trampled on.
But what could a more muscular response consist of? One approach would be to follow the example of the United States which passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012, imposing severe sanctions (including the freezing of assets) on any individual Russians it considered guilty of human rights violations committed on behalf of the Russian state. Britain has recently passed its own version but, according to Tom Tugendhat, the Tory chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, the act needs now to be applied and other western countries need to do the same.
It’s also argued that if the West seriously wants to take a stand against the Putin regime it must first wean itself off its dependence on Russia. In particular this means its dependence on Russian energy and in this context it’s the future of the massive Nord Stream 2 project that’s in the sights of those wanting a tougher response to Moscow. Nord Stream 2 is a 760 mile gas pipeline, owned by the Russian energy company, Gazprom, being laid under the Baltic Sea to deliver Russian gas to Germany, bypassing the current routes through eastern European countries and so denying them their stake in its export. Angela Merkel has been a strong supporter of the project but she is now under huge pressure, including from senior members of her party, to drop it. Mr Tugendhat said it was ‘essential’ to end the project and called on the British government to put pressure on the Germans to pull the plug. President Trump has already imposed sanctions on any company assisting in the completion of the pipeline.
But others urge caution in taking a tougher line against Russia. In relation to our response to the situation in Belarus, for example, Sir Tony Brenton, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, has argued that for the West to weigh in on the side of the protestors in Belarus would simply serve the Kremlin’s book, allowing it to claim the protestors were just pro-western insurgents trying to break the historic links between Russia and Belarus. Much better, he argues, for there to be behind-the-scenes talks with the Russians to see if there is a way that could be agreed to save face on both sides – for President Lukashenko to be eased out of power, so achieving the aim of the protestors, but by a replacement acceptable to Moscow.
The problem is, however, that the poisoning of Mr Navalny makes such ‘business-as-usual’ diplomacy seem like turning the other cheek to state murder, implictly telling Mr Putin that he can kill as many of his opponents as he fancies and we’ll still do business with him. It would seem that the Russian president calculates that this will be the West’s reaction, despite all its public huffing and puffing of protest. Andrei Pivovarov, an opposition activist in Moscow, said this week: ‘The Kremlin wants to prove that no one can tell it what to do. Neither the law, nor the international community, nor God’.
So does this mean Mr Putin is running rings round us? And if so, should we try to stop him? Or should we just cave in, demanding inquiries and justice, but not really meaning any of it and just carrying on as if Mr Navalny hadn’t been poisoned by the Russian state?
What’s your view? Let us know.