The poisoning of Alexei Navalny is not a surprising event. The only thing that may have been unexpected is how long it has taken for a dissident of Putin’s rule over Russia to face a situation that puts him on the brink of death. Unlike previous enemies of the Russian strongman – such as Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, and Sergei Skirpal – who have suffered fates shrouded in suspicious circumstances, Navalny’s coma caused by a dose of novichok was within Putin’s realm, albeit in his airspace.
Because of this – along with Navalny’s role as Russia’s leading pro-democracy activist and as a frequent thorn in Putin’s side – the hopes of those such as Navalny who wish for a true democracy to finally arise in Russia appear to be ringing true for some people’s eyes. The Economist boldly claimed that ‘Vladimir Putin is rattled’ by Navalny’s efforts, going on to rhetorically ask ‘[w]hy else is Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader and Mr Putin’s greatest popular rival for the Russian presidency, lying poisoned in a Berlin hospital bed?’
The latter point made by The Economist is certainly indisputable, but the former less so. Navalny maybe a nuisance to Putin, but he is one of many names on Putin’s long list of individuals who are to be either put in place, or worst, killed. When considering the previous set of victims that have faced the wrath of Putin’s purges, Navalny’s poisoning is hardly a watershed for Russia’s political climate. Instead, Navalny is the latest unfortunate recipient of Putin’s checks and balances approach to maintaining power, a method not too dissimilar to one of Putin’s predecessors during the Soviet era – Joseph Stalin.
Contrary to another brave statement The Economist made, the recent protests in Belarus provide little developments for the emergence of democracy in the country, just like Russia. The country’s leader Alexander Lukashenko is reminiscent of the East German leader Walter Ulbricht – both relying on the greater prowess of Russia as a form of security for their legitimacy to be maintained. Ulbricht beckoned for the Soviets to quash an uprising in East Germany in 1953. Now, in 2020, do we see Putin’s Russia giving similar assistance to Lukashenko’s Belarus, albeit now utilizing Russian advice on the amendments to the constitution instead of military reinforcements. Instead of being a challenge for Putin, the dilemma facing the Lukashenko government has extended Putin’s sphere of influence through integrating Belarus’s needs and interests with Russia’s, thus sustaining Lukashenko’s own reign. If anything, the predicament has been a win-win situation for both leaders and has ameliorated their tense relations with each other.
However, the greatest asset Putin has for preserving his premiership is one that liberal democracies lack – fear. The West has more often than not view Putin’s suspected attacks on individuals such as Navalny as mere acts of revenge, rather than as tests of loyalty for his disciples and Russia’s citizens as a whole. Following this argument is quite reductionist however and characterizes Putin as an archetypal dictator such as Lukashenko. It is worth remembering that Putin is an ex-KGB officer and had worked alongside the Stasi – one of the most effective security agencies in history – in Dresden, a past that he shows off implicitly through his gunslinger’s gait. The Machiavellian attitude Putin has towards international affairs has no doubt benefitted from his past, especially when looking back at his suspected attempt to intimidate the dog-phobic Angela Merkel with his pet black Labrador. The experience and psychology Putin has towards power is one that is rarely found amongst the world leaders of today.
The critical rhetoric used against Putin so far may sound like a challenge for the man himself. But with cases of Putin defying the international order having already occurred several times, the words postulated by leaders who do not tolerate Putin’s actions do not seem to correlate with their responses. This is very much the case with Angela Merkel, who has reaffirmed the decision to continue development of the Nord Stream 2 project – an oil pipeline between Russia and Germany – despite Navalny’s poisoning and Germany’s hospitalisation of the activist. Taking Navalny’s poisoning out of the equation, the agreement is still questionable when considering its leadership, with Nord Stream AG’s (the pipeline’s operator) CEO Matthias Warnig being a former member of the Stasi.
The news of Navalny’s poisoning thus fails to generate any real challenges Putin faces in his hold for power, nor does it establish any new measures by liberal democracies that are more effective than the knee-jerk response of economic and diplomatic sanctions. Instead, it is a part of the continuing long chain of events that are characterised by Putin’s disregard for the international order and the lack of a substantial response by the community that defines it. This type of response, once described as ‘Oh Dearism’ by the documentary maker Adam Curtis in 2014, will continue to be futile, no matter how much we may try to mitigate Putin’s influence through words alone.
Featured image credit: Jørgen Håland on Unsplash