Why Putin Might be Hoping Navalny Survives His Poisoning

Why Putin Might be Hoping Navalny Survives His Poisoning

  • The Russian leader is known to target opponents, but his involvement this time seems unlikely.

Did Vladimir Putin just try to kill one of his harshest domestic critics?

Though it wouldn’t be the first time the Russian president has gone after enemies—his own or his country’s—with lethal precision, analysts say the apparent poisoning of the opposition politician and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny doesn’t quite seem like a Putin hit job.

Navalny was flying from the city of Tomsk, where he had been campaigning with local opposition politicians, to Moscow when he suddenly fell ill on Thursday. In a video posted on Instagram by another passenger, Navalny could be heard crying out in pain before the flight made an emergency landing in Omsk. His press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who was traveling with Navalny, said he became sick drinking a cup of tea at the Tomsk airport: “We assume that Aleksei was poisoned with something mixed with his tea,” she wrote on Twitter.  

Navalny, whom the Wall Street Journal once called “the man Vladimir Putin fears most,” was rushed unconscious to a hospital in Siberia, where he was placed on a ventilator. Doctors at the hospital in Omsk said that the Kremlin critic was in a serious but stable condition. 

There is a long history of Russian dissidents and defectors being poisoned or meeting untimely deaths. In 2006, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died in London after his tea was poisoned with the radioactive isotope polonium-210. A British inquiry concluded that agents of the Russian security agency FSB carried out the murder, likely acting under orders from Putin. 

 “One of poison’s great virtues for the politically minded murderer is their capacity to combine easy deniability and vicious theatricality,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, told Foreign Policy last year. “Even while the murderer denies any role, perhaps with a sly wink, the victim dies a horrific and often lengthy death. A message in a poison bottle.”