Russia menaces Alexei Navalny after he exposed its agents' ineptitude
STAY ABROAD or rot in jail. That was the choice Vladimir Putin offered this week to Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician currently in Germany recovering from an attempt by Russian security agents to assassinate him last August. The new threat was delivered by Russia’s federal prison agency, which accused Mr Navalny of violating a probation period imposed as part of a trumped-up embezzlement conviction in 2014. It was an obvious sham: the probation period expired on December 30th, but on December 28th Mr Navalny was ordered to attend a parole hearing in Moscow at 9am the following morning, or trigger a suspended sentence of three and a half years.
The following day, Russian authorities launched a new and larger embezzlement case against Mr Navalny. He remained unfazed. “Putin desperately does not want me to return to Russia,” he told The Economist. “I am planning to do what I always said I would do: come back.”
The prospect of Mr Navalny returning ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021 has worried the Kremlin ever since September, when he emerged from a coma after collapsing during a flight over Siberia in August. He had been evacuated to Berlin, where doctors determined he had been poisoned with novichok, a Russian military nerve agent. Since then he and his allies have been busy. On December 14th Mr Navalny’s team, along with Bellingcat (a digital forensics group) and the Insider (a Russian investigative outfit), published a joint investigation into the plot to kill him. It included the names and movements of a team of agents of the FSB, a state security agency, who had trailed Mr Navalny since 2017, when he said he would run for president. Using passenger lists, mobile-phone pings and other data, much of it acquired on the dark web, the investigation showed that FSB agents with ties to chemical-weapons facilities had been near Mr Navalny when he was poisoned.
Mr Putin was forced to admit that FSB agents had followed Mr Navalny, but claimed they did so because he had ties to the CIA. There was more to come. On December 21st Mr Navalny released a video of himself telephoning one of his alleged would-be assassins: Konstantin Kudryavtsev, a chemical-weapons specialist with the FSB. Mr Navalny used software that made the call appear to be coming from inside FSB headquarters, and posed as an assistant gathering information for the head of Russia’s national security council. The hapless agent spent 49 minutes explaining how the operation had gone wrong. Pressed for detail, Mr Kudryavtsev explained that the poison had been applied to Mr Navalny’s underpants. “On the groin area?” Mr Navalny inquired. “Well, the so-called codpiece,” the agent answered.
Within hours, the video of Mr Navalny’s conversation had 7m views on YouTube. Blue men’s underpants became a political meme. Several Russian activists, including Vitaly Mansky, a well-known documentary director, turned up in front of FSB headquarters demonstratively holding out pairs of blue briefs. They were promptly detained for employing “visual means of propaganda and agitation”.
Mr Navalny’s videos have confirmed what Western governments said from the start: the FSB was behind the assassination attempt. But more important is the political impact inside the country. The videos have shredded the agency’s image as an efficient secret order untouched by the country’s corruption and professional degradation—a myth first cultivated by the FSB’s predecessor, the Soviet KGB. That myth, notes Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, was skillfully exploited by Mr Putin, a former KGB operative, when he first presented himself to the Russian public as an antidote to the chaos of the 1990s.
The use of invisible poisons is meant to enhance the security services’ aura of mystery and omnipotence. But Mr Navalny’s Gogolesque conversation with his pursuer was a humiliating destruction of the myth. Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist, compared its symbolism to the moment in 1987 when Mathias Rust, an 18-year-old German pilot, landed a small plane near the Kremlin, making a mockery of the Soviet Union’s supposedly impenetrable air-defence system.
Mr Navalny’s investigation may not have convinced many Russians that Mr Putin ordered him poisoned. The Levada Centre, a pollster, says about 15% of the population believe this version. Yet 19% accept Mr Putin’s ludicrous theory that the poisoning was a CIA plot. Most Russians think the poisoning never happened, or prefer not to think about it. Still, the revelations undermine Mr Putin’s claim at his December press conference that “if [the FSB] really wanted to poison him, they would have finished the job.” The humiliated agency may yet try to prove Mr Putin right.■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Caught with their pants down"
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