Think politics is vicious here in the U.S. with scathing denunciations and name-calling by both sides? Americans have absolutely nothing on the Russians. If the allegations are true, a prominent and vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin was poisoned last week to shut him up for good. Pour yourself a spot of tea, get comfy, and read on about the claimed poisoning from a cup of tea.
The poisoning victim was 44 year old Alexei Navalny, considered the unofficial leader of Russian opposition to Putin. Back in 2012, the Wall Street Journal described Navalny as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most.” He attempted to run against the sitting Russian president in the 2018 presidential campaign, but he was barred from doing so. The activist has publicly characterized Putin’s administration as being full of “crooks and thieves,” and his Foundation For Fighting Corruption has successfully exposed corruption among elite government officials. In July Navalny led protests against proposed constitutional amendments allowing Putin to remain in power until 2036. Bottom line? Navalny will never be Putin’s BFF.
So if Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years, why would he just now be the target of an assassination? The short answer is that he has ticked off yet another powerful leader, Putin’s buddy, Alexander Lukashenko, the current (but perhaps not for long) president of Belarus. Lukashenko has been called “the last dictator in Europe.” And, as well as being an unpopular dictator, he’s not PC. He’s retorted that it’s “better to be a dictator than gay.”
In the days leading up to his poisoning, Navalny published videos on YouTube supporting Belarusian protests against Lukashenko. So he posted on social media. Big deal. Well, yes, it was a big deal. Navalny is quite popular; he has 4 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and 2.2 million followers on Twitter. That’s a lot of people to hear him talk badly about two powerful and ruthless men. With both Putin and Lukashenko ticked off at him, is anyone shocked that something awful befell Navalny? Not me!
Now that we know Navalny had a target on his back and why, let’s find out what happened to him. Last Thursday Navalny was on a business trip to Siberia where he was meeting with activists ahead of upcoming local elections. Siberia? Can anything good happen in Siberia? All I know about that area is that it can get extremely cold there. But frigid weather had nothing to do with what befell Navalny. He boarded a plane in Tomsk headed home on a four hour flight to Moscow. Cue ominous music. Let’s just say Navalny didn’t make it to his destination.
After takeoff, the Russian activist began feeling sick. He broke out in a sweat and headed for an airplane bathroom where he collapsed. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing in another Siberian city, Omsk. Yes, Omsk–as in Tomsk minus the “T.” Cell phone video posted on the Internet shows emergency personnel striding down the aisle of the plane back to the restroom while a man can be heard screaming in agony. (Go on. Check out the video. You know you want to!)
Navalny was removed from the plane and taken to the hospital. Doctors state he would have died if an emergency landing had not been made. Although Navalny is alive, he is on a respirator and in a coma. His wife, Yulia, was initially denied access to see him because she didn’t have a marriage certificate on her person to prove her spouse status. (Like you’d rush to Siberia to see to a man in dire straits who wasn’t your spouse?)
Being a healthy individual, this sudden medical emergency gave rise to claims Navalny had been poisoned. Specifically, it was believed that poison had been placed in a cup of tea Navaly drank at an airport cafe’ prior to boarding his flight, the only thing he had consumed all morning. But to exactly no one’s surprise, the Siberian doctors reported finding no poison in the activists’ system, just alcohol and caffeine. That finding was suspicious to Navalny’s family who pointed out that he was a teetotaller. Accordingly, they sought to have him transferred to Germany for treatment.
A tense 12 hour standoff ensued when doctors refused to let Navalny be transferred abroad because they said he was too unstable to travel. Opposition figures claimed the doctors were under government pressure to cover up evidence of the attack by delaying his transfer until the poison in his system was no traceable. Navalny’s wife petitioned Putin directly to allow her husband’s transfer to Germany. Under pressure from European leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, Russia ultimately agreed to the transfer.
A medical evacuation plane transported Navalny to Berlin on Saturday where he was admitted to Charite’ Hospital. Again, to no one’s surprise, German doctors found indications of a substance used in pesticides and Soviet-era nerve agents in his system. What to do when a government critic has the nerve to oppose Putin, his government, and his dictator/buddy? Why make sure he unknowingly ingests a nerve agent, of course!
A pattern exists of Putin’s opponents dying under suspicious circumstances. Poisoning is his M.O., a familiar tool he uses against his opposition. According to Thomas Pickering, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, if a poisoning occurs, folks will believe it goes back to Putin. Multiple cases have occurred over the years of prominent Putin opponents being victims of poisonings or suspected poisonings at the hands of Russian agents. In fact, this is the second attempted poisoning of Navalny; a previous attempt occurred a year ago when he was at a detention center, his activism leading to his being in and out of jail.
European officials have called for a full Russian investigation of Navalny’s sudden illness. Russia has, of course, denied any involvement in the poisoning. Americans may be appalled, but the event is an internal Russian matter as it took place on Russian soil. Would Americans want the Russians telling our country how to handle a controversial police shooting? No, that’s an internal matter. Russians won’t take kindly to the U.S. telling it how to handle the Navalny situation either.
Regardless of how the politics plays out between the world powers or what investigators do or don’t find should an investigation go forward, Navalny is in a precarious state. He remains comatose with the extent of a possible recovery unknown. He may possibly suffer long-term nerve damage. There’s no free speech in Russia, and he’s paying for his comments opposing the powers that be with his health if not his life. And, for us Americans, the 2020 presidential election certainly cannot be as nasty as Russian politics. Russians kill with poison while Americans merely fling poisonous words.
Does the Navalny poisoning sound like the plot out of spy movie to you? Do you think Putin is behind the poisoning? Should the U.S. get involved if the matter is an internal Russian one?