Dec 26, 2020
In a series of events capable of stunning even veteran Russia watchers, Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny was nearly killed with a rare nerve agent before he recovered from a coma and went on to trick one of his apparent assassins into confessing to the details of the plot on tape.
As sensational as this is, we must keep the focus on the bigger picture: Russia, under strongman Vladimir Putin’s watch, has become a rogue regime apparently responsible, despite its loud denials, for a growing list of egregious crimes. Add assassinations of political targets at home and abroad — some with banned chemical weapons — to Russia’s ongoing invasion of neighboring Ukraine and a hacking campaign of unprecedented scope against the United States, and it’s clear that Putin has become bolder and more dangerous than ever.
The plot against Navalny was too brazen and incompetently performed to exist in the pages of the late John le Carré’s spy novels. Far from the subtlety and brilliance of his Soviet spymaster Karla, Putin’s thugs bungled the apparent murder attempt before one of them spent nearly an hour on the phone confessing the entire plot to the target! In this case, truth is not only stranger than fiction — it’s also stupider. This is cold comfort, however.
When I was first arrested and jailed for five days in 2007 for leading a pro-democracy march in Moscow, I took precautions. I refused to eat or drink anything provided by the authorities, insisting they allow my mother to bring me provisions. Some of my colleagues found this bizarre, as Navalny himself admitted in a recent interview. “I remember the first time (Kasparov) was in jail, he didn’t eat a thing because he was afraid that they’d poison him. And we all laughed at him! We thought he was paranoid. He is the only person I know who took any security measures.”
While he’s no longer laughing, Navalny was also correct to point out that ultimately, there is nothing you can do to be 100% safe. I’ve answered questions about my own safety too many times at speaking engagements across the world. Of course, I’m worried, I say, and I do what I can to minimize the risks. I don’t drink tea with strangers, I don’t fly with the state-owned airline Aeroflot, and I don’t travel to countries where Putin might be able to put pressure on local authorities to do him a favor. But no one is untouchable in a world where criminals go unpunished.
Putin, who worked as a KGB officer before his political ascendance, once said himself that “there’s no such thing as a former KGB man.” While he has always prioritized the security services during his two decades in power, the decay within Russia’s intelligence agency is obvious as the country stagnates under dictatorship. Morale is low, there are constant internal fights and leaks, and the toxins team along with Navalny’s surveillance squad have been doxxed by a meticulous CNN-Bellingcat investigation.
But you don’t have to be a master assassin when you can keep trying with impunity, even after being caught red-handed. Navalny’s brilliant sting operation won’t lead to an arrest and may only increase the chances he’ll be targeted again with a less subtle method. The Kremlin has doubled down on its lies and denials, spreading a flood of contradictory stories by officials and in the state-run media. Putin himself was dismissive as usual, refusing to even mention Navalny by name when asked about the case. He denied the poisoning, saying, “If (FSB agents) wanted to, they would’ve probably finished it.”
Putin even accused American intelligence agencies of supporting Navalny, which, unfortunately, isn’t likely. It seems President Donald Trump’s only consistent position over the last four years has been his loyalty to Putin. Even in the face of one of the worst cyberattacks in US history, Trump has refused to call out Russia as the culprit, even when his own secretary of state said, “We can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”
Putin’s henchmen are sloppy because they can afford to be. Just like their boss, they don’t fear any repercussions. Putin could kick out all the foreign media in Russia and reduce the risks of any further exposure, but he simply doesn’t see the need. He got caught again, but so what? In 2006, former Russian Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko was murdered with a radioactive poison in central London and the UK government buried the investigation for years. In 2015, prominent Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead near Red Square, one of the most heavily surveilled areas in Russia, yet the cover-up of a trial of his murderers failed to present any video evidence. In 2018, Russian agents used the same Novichok toxin used on Navalny to poison targets in England, and another target was gunned down in Berlin. Nevertheless, Germany is still moving ahead with the big Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project that is so dear to Putin.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is sending a clear message to all despots as it considers granting legal immunity for Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ordered the gruesome killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to the CIA. I strongly recommend watching The Dissident, the powerful new documentary about Khashoggi’s murder, and then questioning how any official from the free world can in good conscience sit down with bin Salman.
Yet, there is always talk about the need for more international engagement with these despots and thugs, not less. The dubious theory that globalization and closer economic
ties will inevitably liberalize dictatorships has been refuted many times over. We see this with China’s Xi Jinping, who has become more authoritarian and aggressive since the US welcomed China into the World Trade Organization. Instead, engagement — or appeasement by another name — reinforces their sense of impunity. Having crushed all internal opposition, they soon feel they have nothing to fear from other world leaders. Dictators, demagogues and aspiring autocrats watch each other carefully, gauging how the leaders of the free world respond to their power plays. When a dissident is murdered without repercussions, it’s seen as a free pass to other rogue leaders, which puts all dissidents in greater danger.
Russia must be ejected from the international institutions it alternately exploits and ignores, like Interpol. It must be made clear that there can be no normalization until Putin is gone. As President-elect Joe Biden gears up to enter the White House, he should make a strong statement that the United States is ready once again to lead the free world and will no longer tolerate Russia’s actions — unlike his predecessor.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation and a former world chess champion. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.