‘Troubles come in threes’, goes the saying. Still struggling with the coronavirus, Russia’s leaders have this past week also been troubled by the protests in Belarus and the potential loss of a key ally. And now they face a third, and in some ways politically far more troublesome, problem – the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny.
From the moment that Navalny fell ill on a plane travelling from the Siberian city of Tomsk, his supporters have accused the Kremlin of poisoning him and then endeavoring to cover up its crime by falsifying his medical diagnosis and delaying his transfer to Germany for treatment.
Western leaders are demanding that the Russian government institute a full and independent investigation into the apparent attempt on Navalny’s life. For instance, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said that, ‘It is imperative that the Russian authorities initiate an independent and transparent investigation into the poisoning of Navalny without delay.’
On Monday, the Kremlin rejected this demand. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that accusations that President Putin had personally ordered Navalny’s poisoning were ‘idle talk’. He quibbled that Navalny’s German doctors had not identified a poison in his body, merely an ‘effect’ – ‘lowered cholinesterase’ – which the Russian doctors had themselves discovered ‘in the first hours.’ If the Germans succeed in identifying a poison, said Peskov, ‘then, of course, this will be cause for an investigation’. Otherwise, no investigation was called for.
The Kremlin’s problem here is that in the eyes of the Western media, Western politicians, and no doubt the vast bulk of the population of most Western countries, it has no credibility on such matters at all. Previous cases, especially the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England, have strongly entrenched the idea that Moscow is in the habit of murdering its political opponents. The attempts by the Kremlin and Russian media to deflect blame for the Skripal poisoning (as also with the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine) have also reinforced the impression that nothing the Russians say can be trusted. Faced with two diagnoses – one by Russian doctors saying that there was no poisoning, and one by German doctors saying that there was – the overwhelming majority of people in the Western world are going to favour the latter.
This has important geopolitical consequences. Perceptions of how regimes and individual leaders behave on the domestic scene impact perceptions of how they are likely to behave internationally. A state which habitually murders its own citizens, and then lies about it, is a state which cannot be trusted. Commenting on the Navalny case, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul commented that, ‘Putin is evil’. In the face of the announcement by the German doctors, this type of rhetoric is likely to find an ever more receptive audience.
There can be no doubt, therefore, that what has happened to Aleksei Navalny is very bad news indeed for Russia’s international reputation, and is yet another nail in the coffin of East-West relations. The question then arises of whether there is anything that Moscow can do to mitigate the damage.
Unfortunately for the Kremlin, it has few good options. Even if poisoning isn’t proven, doubts will remain. And if poisoning were to be established, and the Russian authorities were to carry out a thorough investigation which identified some culprits, and arrested and convicted them, it’s unlikely that critics would be satisfied. As with previous cases, such as the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, sceptics would probably claim that those convicted were fall guys set up to hide the true guilty parties lurking deep in the corridors of power.
That said, failure to act would be even worse. Efforts to dismiss allegations against the Russian government by pointing out that that it has nothing to gain by killing Navalny, or by claiming that others were responsible, will simply lead to charges that Russia is engaging in propaganda and disinformation.
In these circumstances, the most sensible thing that those in power in Russia can do is treat the Navalny incident as a case of suspected attempted murder and do what foreign leaders are demanding – i.e. carry out a thorough and transparent investigation, ideally with the participation of an outside party. Only in this way can they hope to deflect the huge wave of criticism that is coming their way. Anything less will be treated as an admission of guilt.