Navalny’s Death Crowns a Long-Running Campaign Against Kremlin Critics

Navalny’s death clears the field and kills off the last real political opponent to Putin.. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) (AFP)
Navalny’s death clears the field and kills off the last real political opponent to Putin.. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) (AFP)

Summary

The Kremlin has killed or exiled a long list of opponents so that Russians see no alternative to Putin.

The death of Alexei Navalny eliminates the last opposition figure inside Russia with enough political heft to be seen as a possible leader, marking the culmination of a long-running Kremlin campaign to kill or force into exile any possible alternatives to President Vladimir Putin.

Reaction to Navalny’s death was muted inside Russia Friday, where political dissent is effectively criminalized. In Moscow, police looked on while some residents laid flowers at a memorial to political repression in the shadow of the former KGB headquarters. Russian prosecutors warned people not to take part in mass meetings.

State television showed Putin, who has over the years avoided saying Navalny’s name in public, visiting an industrial park in southern Russia, smiling and chatting with workers there. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced as “absolutely unacceptable" statements from Western leaders that the Kremlin was to blame for Navalny’s death.

Even when ill, Navalny, who was 47, was loath to show any weakness to the Kremlin, acquaintances said, and he often used his public appearances to taunt officials. A video clip dated a day before his death showed him smiling and teasing a judge about his salary, but acquaintances said he had suffered an accumulation of ailments. Western officials said they may never learn exactly how he died.

One thing, though, is certain: Navalny’s death clears the field and kills off the last real political opponent to Putin. While some Putin critics have been shunted aside by legal or financial pressure, others have been shot or poisoned—or in one case strangled by a dog leash.

“This has been the political logic of the Kremlin—to create a lack of alternatives for Russians, to make sure the landscape is barren," said Andrew Weiss, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. “They want Russians to see Putin as the only alternative."

It is a winnowing process that Putin began even before his presidency. In 1999, when Putin was director of Russia’s security services, he earned the gratitude of then-President Boris Yeltsin by disposing of Russia’s top prosecutor whom Yeltsin perceived as a threat.

Putin invited the prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, to a meeting where he aired for him a videotape showing a naked man who resembled Skuratov in bed with two sex workers, Skuratov said at the time. When Skuratov refused to resign, Putin presented the tape at a press conference. Later the tape was aired on national television and Skuratov departed his post.

When Yeltsin stepped down and appointed Putin on New Year’s Eve in 1999 as his successor, Putin set about dealing with other political rivals more harshly. A onetime ally, oil and auto magnate Boris Berezovsky, publicly sparred with Putin weeks into his presidency. Berezovsky fled to London after prosecutors launched financial investigations into his companies and seized the television station under his control.

Another oligarch, oil and banking magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, remained in Russia and attempted to start a political movement, funded by his oil company Yukos. Prosecutors pursued him for fraud, arrested him in 2003 aboard his private jet on a runway in Siberia, and seized Yukos. He was released from prison 10 years later and also left the country.

Today former U.S. officials and Kremlin watchers disagree on when, exactly, Putin’s pressure on opponents turned deadly and how many of the deaths of Russians in Russia and abroad were the work of the Kremlin or private disputes.

In 2003, two politicians who investigated Putin’s rise to power suffered untimely deaths. Both were members of a parliamentary commission investigating apartment bombings in Russia in 1999 that Putin, then prime minister, had used as a pretext for invading the breakaway region of Chechnya.

One, Sergei Yushenkov, was shot dead outside his apartment in April 2003. Police blamed the killing on a political dispute inside his political party. Another, Yuri Shchekochikhin, died that July in what Russian investigators described as an allergic reaction that colleagues suspected was a poisoning.

In 2006, Russia’s parliament passed a law effectively legalizing extrajudicial killings of perceived extremists abroad. Russian lawmakers argued that they were only emulating the U.S. and Israel by allowing the country’s special services to operate against external threats. Critics, including some former Russian security service officers, argued it could lead to political assassinations.

Four months later Alexander Litvinenko, a protégé of Berezovsky who fled with him to London, was killed by a career Russian security service agent who slipped a dose of radioactive isotope, polonium-210, into his tea in a restaurant in central London. British authorities said the Kremlin was behind the killing. The Kremlin refused to extradite the agent, Andrei Lugovoi, who is now a member of Russia’s parliament.

Litvinenko’s symptoms—he lost his hair and languished for weeks in a hospital—bore similarities to those suffered by Shchekochikhin as well as a number of Chechen militants who died unexpectedly in custody in Russia in previous years. His death in London prompted fears among Kremlin critics that Russia’s security services had used polonium with deadly effect before but that it went undetected.

Berezovsky was found dead in the bathroom of his home in the U.K. in 2013, after an apparent hanging. Examiners disagreed on whether his death was a suicide or the result of foul play. His former business partner, Nikolai Glushkov, who also fled to London after being jailed in Russia, was found dead in his home in 2018, strangled by a dog leash. Police said they were searching for the occupants of a black van spotted near his house the night of his killing, which remains unsolved.

Also in 2018, two Kremlin agents attempted to kill a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter with a Soviet-era nerve agent in a city in southern England, an attack that then-Prime Minister Theresa May said was almost certainly authorized at “a senior level" of the Russian state. Russia denied any responsibility, and the U.K. expelled 23 of its diplomats.

Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment, said that Russia’s assassination program appears to be effective in persuading well-connected and ordinary Russians that the Kremlin could hunt them down wherever it pleased. He noted that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, no high-level officials have defected to the West and openly denounced Putin.

“Nobody of serious political weight has escaped from Russia and given a tell-all about how the Kremlin operates," Weiss said. “It’s very telling; they clearly all think they have something to worry about."

Navalny was an outlier among Kremlin opponents, he said, because he appeared so indifferent to threats and repeated arrests. He rose to prominence as an anticorruption blogger and then as a speaker in 2011-12 during mass protests against what Western officials called rigged elections in Russia. Frequent arrests only added to his fame.

Threats and draconian laws against public protest took their toll on opposition leaders. In 2013 former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who had tried to run for president and later helped organize protests, announced that he had left Russia. He said he feared that if he returned he would be arrested and not permitted to leave.

Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin in the 1990s, remained in Russia and continued the fight. In private he voiced worries that he could be assassinated. He was shot to death while walking home with his girlfriend in early 2015 within sight of the Kremlin in central Moscow.

Navalny inherited the role of de facto opposition leader after Nemtsov’s death. He drew younger supporters through a savvy use of social media that he also used to circumvent the Kremlin’s monopoly of the airwaves, lampooning the Kremlin with investigations into the corruption and chicanery of high officials.

After he survived a poisoning during an airline flight over Siberia 2020, he even ridiculed his would-be assassins. Navalny underwent recovery in Germany and researched the team that attempted to kill him with the investigative journalism group Bellingcat. After learning the identity of the team, he phoned the would-be killers, identifying himself as a Russian security service officer, getting one of them to reveal they were responsible for the poisoning.

He chose to return to Russia in early 2021, and was arrested immediately upon his arrival in Moscow.

Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Kremlin is probably not worried by foreign fallout over his death, since relations between Moscow and the West are already so low. Putin has shrugged at Western sanctions, he said, and figures his status as a pariah won’t change in any case.

“Meanwhile, the most charismatic opposition figure in Russia has died," said Graham. “It’s going to be very difficult to find a replacement because the conditions that led to Navalny don’t prevail today. There are no demonstrations, there are no elections where opposition candidates run. So how does anyone demonstrate that they have these leadership qualities that Navalny developed during a decade in his rise to prominence?"

Write to Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com

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