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Who Benefits? The Navalny Case: Usual Suspects, Actual Culprits

We are concerned about the recent news relating to the poisoning of Russian opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, and believe that it may be another attempt by certain interested parties to worsen the already strained US-Russia relations.

Even those who despise President Putin know that he is not insane.  Why would Putin seek ‘normal’ relations with Europe [and, at the beginning at least, the United States] only to subvert those efforts by having people shot next door to the Kremlin (Nemtsov) or poisoned on airplanes or airports (Navalny)? It would be like the all-too-obvious murder suspect who leaves his ID at the scene of the crime.

There has been a drumbeat of accusations from intelligence agencies in the US and the UK of nefarious Kremlin behavior: official Russian government interference in elections; the “bounty” report targeting US troops in Afghanistan; now the Navalny episode, which recalls the Sergei Skripal poisoning in the UK.

Apart from those already offered, there are a number of reasons that suggest Putin may not be culpable, and that other forces may be at work. In our view, they include the following:

1. The timing of the Navalny drama is suspicious, occurring as it did just before the closing of the Democratic National Convention and right before the start of the Republican National Convention. This way Russia’s ‘malign’ activities remain front and center in the mainstream media in the middle of a US election. One has to ask: Cui bono?

2. The Russian bounty report has become implanted in the public mind even though there was no credible evidence, and the Defense Department has officially denied it. Yet President Trump is asked about this at almost every press conference. It was even mentioned in Biden’s acceptance speech on August 20th. This ‘poisoning’ news of Alexey Navalny will now seamlessly replace the Russian bounty report.  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Here they go again.”

3. The Durham report has been underway for some time, and the prosecutor may soon be ready to bring about specific charges against certain members of our own intelligence community. What better way to protect these agencies and foment a distraction from Durham via another “Putin poisoning”?

4. President Trump has offered to meet with President Putin at the General Assembly meeting in September. News such as this will inevitably make it difficult for him to do so, for fear of being perceived as a ‘Putin puppet’. That will further setback US relations with Russia, and make such dialogue even more difficult than it is now.

5. Various Arms Control treaties have already been abrogated or withdrawn from, and New START is scheduled to expire in February 2021.  Renewal will require that the negotiations begin now. News such as this will make that more difficult, and feed into the interests of our own military and corporate groups that stand to profit from the abrogation of such treaties.

6. Germany is keen to have the Nord Stream 2 pipeline completed and only the last segment remains to be built. What better way to stall that effort than to have this dire news of attack on a political opponent? How can the EU possibly deal with President Putin under these circumstances? The way is paved for sanctions on any party helping with the completion of that pipeline [remember the fresh tranche of sanctions that followed the Skripal episode.]

7. Senator Lindsay Graham, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is in the process of some important hearings about the role of former FBI Director James Comey, the falsification of emails in order that the FBI could obtain FISA warrants to monitor the Republican presidential candidate, question the bonafides of the Steele dossier, and so on. News such as this, which can sway the public mind against President Putin even more, will inevitably seek to make those hearings less credible.

8. Mr. Navalny has dealt with some dubious, indeed dangerous characters, both in business deals and in politics.  With regard to the latter, he has long been involved with various ultranationalist groups, including anti-immigrant The People, which espoused “the rights of ethnic Russians” while advocating the expulsion from Russia of entire national populations, including Georgians.  As founder or member of subsequent Rightist organizations [he describes himself as a “nationalist democrat”] for years, he led the annual “Russia March” which was described by EU representatives as a “Parade uniting Russian nationalist groups of all stripes.”  In other words, Navalny has baggage—a fact ignored by Western media, which has lionized him as Putin’s #1 opposition leader [even though his popularity in Russia is slim.]

In sum, it is highly questionable that Putin is behind this poisoning-if indeed this was the cause of Navalny’s collapse. More likely it could be the work of certain Russian or Ukrainian oligarchs who have their own agenda against President Putin. Even the Financial Times, no friend of Putin, said in an August 21 editorial:

“Mr. Navalny made enemies across Russia’s business and political class.  If he was poisoned, there is no certainty the authorities or state-linked articles were responsible.”  In the interests of fairness, we need consideration of all myriad possibilities, not a rush to convenient judgment.

David Speedie is the former director of the program on US Global engagement at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a member of the Board of the American Committee for East-West Accord.

Krishen Mehta is a Senior Global Justice Fellow at Yale University.

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