Alexei Navalny, the de facto main leader of Russia’s political opposition, flares up in online news outlets across Russia seemingly every few days. Whether it be his regular upload of videos exposing the corruption of the Russian government, being sued by another Putin crony, or calling for demonstrations against him, Navalny seems to be on the rise.
On August 20, however, after a routine flight back to Moscow, his name skyrocketed in search results and news sources for an unwelcome reason. After drinking a cup of tea Navalny screamed in pain and then collapsed on the ground, and within two hours, he was comatose at a Siberian hospital in the city of Omsk after his plane made an emergency landing.
His personal spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, soon went to Twitter to announce that he had been poisoned, and implied that Putin had been behind it. Soon, droves of doctors and even more police were at the scene as Navalny was put on a ventilator and a representative for the hospital said that he was in serious condition. During the first two days, doctors working on the case refused to divulge too much information and even refused to let Navalny’s wife and personal physician see him. After hesitating between several possible conclusions, the chief physician acknowledged that he had probably been poisoned, and two days later, after much reluctance, his doctors approved of his transport to Charite Hospital in Germany for treatment.
By September 2, Angela Merkel officially declared that Germany had irrefragable evidence that Navalny has been poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent, a signature class of poisons used by Putin and which became quite famous after a failed 2018 assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain. According to Leonid Volkov, one of Navalny’s associates, using Novichok for Putin is tantamount to “leaving a business card”.
Unsurprisingly, Merkel’s report was denied by the Russian foreign press secretary and and state-run media sources, which resorted to a traditional strategy by proposing plausible conclusions, delegitimizing legitimate reports by the German government, and to, in famous dissident Garry Kasparov’s words, “ Exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” Specifically, sources like the Russian news agency TASS relied on the fact that Trump said the U.S. does not have evidence of Navalny’s poisoning, and that Putin frenemy Alexander Lukashenko, the de facto dictator of Belarus, allegedly had proof debunking Navalny’s poisoning.
As of September 6th, the Russian government has denied any involvement despite increasing evidence to the contrary and mounting pressure, including stern condemnations by NATO, Germany and Britain. This then begs the question, what comes next for Russia domestically and internationally?
With the former, outrage at Navalny’s poisoning could trigger backlash against Putin and his party, United Russia. Although mostly popular with the nation’s youth, Navalny has been growing traction, rising from a recognition rate of 37% in 2013 to over 60% today. In light of the recent anti-government protests in the city of Khabarovsk Krai, Putin might want to try harder to keep any fuel for the growing opposition in the shadows. The Russian president’s approval rating has hit an all-time low, falling to 60% by July, a seemingly high but worryingly low number for any authoritarian.
For the latter, Germany and other EU members are seriously considering adding tough sanctions to Russia, conjuring up memories and deja vu of the sanctions which battered the Russian economy in 2014 following the Crimean annexation. While no statement has been made on a decision, the EU announced that it would deliberate once it became indisputably clear that the Kremlin ordered the poisoning. Additionally, Germany is considering canceling plans to build a Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Russia across the Baltic Sea which would connect Russian gas to German consumers and provide a lifeline to the economy of the largest country on Earth. Before the poisoning, Germany was already under straining diplomatic pressure from the U.S. to abandon the project, and cutting it could deprive the Russian economy of a potentially vital artery in the next few years.