Should we doubt it?

Navalny is evacuated to a hospital. Omsk Airport, 20 August 2020

When anything bad happens in Russia, you’ll usually find there are two types of Russia-watchers: the ‘believers’ and the ‘sceptics’. The believers will immediately see the hand of Vladimir Putin, his direct, personal involvement, his orders. The sceptics will not rule out his involvement, but like Yana Gorokhovskaya, they’ll argue that Russia is not ‘a highly centralised system that he controls manually’, that Putin is ‘certainly Russia’s most important decision-maker’, but ‘the political system is not his personal well-oiled machine’. There are many groups and individuals with political agency, operating without Putin’s knowledge, and sometimes against his own interests.

In many instances, including the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny, the sceptics will argue that Putin must bear political, even moral responsibility, because of the nature of his regime. But it is unlikely that he carries personal, criminal responsibility. For the sceptics, saying bluntly that ‘Putin did Navalny’, that he actually ordered the killing, is almost akin to saying that ‘Bush did 9/11’ in other circles, too naïve, too simple for a messy reality.

I consider myself a ‘sceptic’, and I believe that the sceptics’ characterisation of Vladimir Putin’s regime is correct. But I would like, for once, to shake the assumptions of that scepticism. Why is it so hard to believe Putin actually did it, that he ordered the killing of Aleksey Navalny?

Why do the ‘sceptics’ doubt Putin actually did it? First, literally no one believes he couldn’t do it. Second, few — if any — doubt that he wouldn’t do it for moral reasons: in Putin’s moral universe, the lives of some human beings almost certainly are expendable. There’s means, there’s opportunity, there’s the personality of the suspect, so all you can doubt is the motive. He didn’t do it because it would be ‘irrational’. It is not difficult to assign to Vladimir Putin cold-blooded rationality, to believe that his self-interested goal is to maximise his power, that in order to maximise his power, he uses all kinds of means in order to weaken opposition to his rule. He may of course have other goals, but like any other political leader, he wishes to stay in power. So by ‘irrational’, the sceptics mean that it would not be in Putin’s ‘interest’ to kill Navalny, that it would not, according to his calculations, serve that goal. We must imagine Putin sitting in his office and weighing the costs and benefits of a hit on Navalny.

Let’s start with the costs. Tatyana Stanovaya lists the most important of them: ‘that he becomes a hero if the authorities’ treatment of him looks obviously unjust’. This ‘martyr theory’ has many adepts, from Mark Galeotti to … Navalny himself. A Tomsk activist who met Navalny just before his poisoning, told Reuters he was asked why he is still alive. Navalny answered: ‘it’s not in Putin’s interest. [I] will be turned into a hero. People will wear t-shirts stating ‘I’m / We’re Navalny’. There will be meetings and the like.’

Navalny could turn into a martyr, and trigger unseen protests. But another scenario is perhaps even more likely: that Navalny will be a martyr for a week, that a few thousands or dozens of thousands will show up in the streets with these ‘I’m Navalny’ t-shirts. And then, every year, on the anniversary of his killing, a ritual march will gather a few thousands in Moscow. And that’s it. Isn’t that a risk worth running? Isn’t it all the more worth running, when control over the media will allow the Kremlin to depict him as a pawn of the West and a traitor? As to the risk to Putin’s ‘image’, stressed by Ivan Davydov, I’m sceptical as well. How much has Putin suffered from the murder of Boris Nemtsov? Whether in the West or in Russia, Putin’s track-record in terms of lives of journalists and opposition activists is low. He could think it’s not worth lowering it further, he could also think that his ‘image’ is already beyond repair, so why not take the risk?

Navalny’s ‘martyrdom potential’ is why Tatyana Stanovaya argued that his murder ‘was seen in the Kremlin as a kind of nightmare scenario’. If this was such a nightmare scenario, the least I can say is that it didn’t seem to keep the Kremlin awake at night. For years now, opposition activists and journalists are constantly harassed and followed by all kinds of thugs, pro-Kremlin ‘journalists’ and ‘activists’. Navalny was several time attacked in broad daylight, his daughter’s WhatsApp account was hacked and published. Many of his closest associates have suffered the same treatment, others opposition activists have likely been poisoned. The TV hammers day in day out that they’re foreign agents of the West, traitors and the like, all with the help of the Russian security services. The Kremlin must surely know where this all ends. Putin has known it for at least five years, when Boris Nemtsov was gunned down by the Kremlin walls. Allow me to doubt that the murder of an opposition leader is such a ‘nightmare’ to him.

Let’s keep delving in Putin’s cost and benefits analysis. The risks of killing him have to weighed against the benefits of keeping him alive. It is argued that he is ‘useful to the Kremlin’ — I mean, alive. How so? RT journalist Bryan MacDonald argues that: ‘He’s the perfect opposition figure because a) he’s not very popular b) has effectively taken over the liberal movement & c) his presence has effectively blocked new liberal opposition leaders from appearing’. We’ve heard before that it was useless to kill an opponent because he’s ‘unpopular’: when Nemtsov was assassinated. We were told he was too old, too involved in the Yeltsin regime, too lonely. Now, it’s Navalny’s turn not to be popular enough. In Russia, opposition leaders are never popular or even good enough to deserve assassination. We’re regularly told that their unpopularity makes them useful in the Kremlin’s grand scheme of things. I suspect that these talks from ‘sources close to the Kremlin’ could also be plain bravado and propaganda. After all, haven’t pro-Kremlin media tried to depict Navalny as a Kremlin ‘project’, a ‘tool’ of some Kremlin clan, as shown by a recent ‘Proekt media’ investigation? He’s so useful to us, so if anything happens to him, look the other way! And now, we have even heard the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chairman of the Duma claim that killing Navalny is not in ‘Russia’s interest’ — it’s rather, in the interest of ‘Western European powers’. Should we trust them?

Those who doubt the motive behind the killing because of the ‘unpopularity’ argument, should be careful with it: it can be used both ways. Yes, if he is so unpopular, then there is little benefit in killing him, and no real rational motive. But, if he is so unpopular then the cost of killing him is low. If Putin believes that Navalny is a cult-like figure that fanatised a bunch of teenagers, that there’s nothing but his charisma (and some Western, oligarch money) behind him, then the costs of killing him look pretty negligible. Who will care anyway? We should be careful not to judge that ‘popularity’ by our own, supposedly objective standards. Navalny certainly is not popular to the point where a majority of Russians supports him. But he surely is popular enough to deserve repression? After all, it’s not like all kind of obscure groupuscules and personalities have been heavily repressed — some of them even had to be invented in order to be repressed. If there’s a ‘rational’ case for repression, I don’t know why there shouldn’t be a rational case for the supreme measure of repression: assassination.

Let’s now turn to the benefits of killing Navalny. I have a hard time believing Navalny is an ‘ideal’ opposition politician for Putin. True, his liberal, pro-Western views are only held by a minority in Russia. But who can deny that within that part of the political spectrum, he has been among the most active, talented, and charismatic. Who else has, in the last ten years tried to build a national network of headquarters and activists? Who has shown such success? The answer is no one. The ‘martyr scenario’ has probably been too much discussed, and I suggest we come back to a plain fact: a dead, or comatose, or exiled man can do less than a live one. A well-known, charismatic personality is not something that is created out of thin air — it took more than a decade for Navalny to build that status. There might not be that many ‘charismatic leaders’ around, and many political movements never manage to find one. Navalny has tried hard to institutionalise his movement, to create a party, to participate normally in the political life of his country. The regime has effectively repressed his efforts: he does not have a party, not a single elected official. Even though there are talented politicians around him, none of them come close in terms of ‘charisma’ or nationwide profile, a fact acknowledged by his closest associates. In these conditions, it is perfectly rational to think that killing (or at least incapacitating) him would deal a severe blow to his ‘movement’ and to the opposition in general. It could also have the obvious added benefit of terrorising any potential opponent. If Putin believes Navalny is too popular (we don’t know how much popularity is too much for him), then the benefit of killing him becomes obvious.

If we sum up the view from Putin’s office, we have a manageable risk, that of turning Navalny in a martyr, and a clear benefit in sight: to decapitate a movement led by a charismatic personality. There is rationality in taking this decision.

What are the counter-arguments to the ‘Putin did Navalny’ thesis, what can the defence argue? First, as shown again by the Proekt investigation, the Kremlin has always stopped short of full-blown repression with him. The authorities have micro-managed all sorts of repressive measures, by state and non-state agents, in order to stifle Navalny’s activities. We have no guarantee whatsoever that they have not changed their minds, that now, enough is enough, and that, as many have said in Russia, this poisoning might augur some terrible changes. Second, some, like Mark Galeotti, argue that the reaction of the authorities was quite confused and incoherent, that they looked ‘caught off guard’. But in the sceptics’ own logic, Russia is not a well-run totalitarian state, where Putin would have set the plan for the hit with the services, the medical plan with the Ministry of Health, and the media plan with the heads of TV. As to the medical plan, I suppose you can just let the doctors work on Navalny, and then a few phone calls from Moscow to the chief doctor will straighten things up. As to the media plan, there is no need for coherence or plausibility, you can supply these people with scripts along the way, or better still, let them on autopilot. They know the drill, and they’ve shown it: Navalny got hammered on moonshine! He’s a cocaine-addict! He’s on a diet and should have had a Raffaelo in his purse! Navalny wasn’t poisoned, but if he was, Merkel did it! Muddle the waters and move on.

As Mark Galeotti writes, ‘a state that kills is a terrible thing … But a state that permits a whole range of actors and interests to kill with impunity is an even more uncomfortable thing’. Unfortunately, we don’t know that the two do not exclude each other: we can have the worst of both worlds. There might be some comfort in thinking that Putin isn’t a mad dog. Nobody has any trouble in believing murderous thugs operate in Russia, on the payroll of some businessman, but again, there might be some comfort in the idea that Putin is a fairly rational arbiter between them. Sceptics ask: what if he isn’t anymore? What if, worse, the assassination of an opposition leader falls within the boundaries of his rationality?

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