The last time this happened was just a year ago. Alexei Navalny, Poisoned? noted how remarkable it was he was still alive. This directly translates to the present tense.
In Russia, poisoning politicians is nothing new. The modern syndrome, specifically applied to politicians in post-breakup Russia, may date no further back than 2015, with the first poisoning of Vladimir Kara-Murza. Poisoned again in 2017, he was allowed to seek medical treatment abroad. Forced emigration may have been the poisoners’ objective. See Kim Jong Nam & Vladimir Kara-Murza; All About Poisons; Novichok.
The modern syndrome is near-death, prolonged illness, partial recovery, and prolonged or permanent disability. It is characterized by stealth and extreme precision, a sub lethal dose of a substance so poisonous it completely evades standard toxicology. Vil Mirzayanov revealed the existence of the Novichok family of nerve agents in 1992, but hope for a “new Russia” delayed assessment of the threat.
With the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Charlie Rowley and the death of Dawn Sturgess, it became apparent that Novichok A-234 is not simply a Russian ace-in-the-hole, but an operational device.
The Russian arsenal also includes agents of embarrassment, such as the dioxin TCDD, used against Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. In July 2019, Navalny asserted he was “poisoned” in his Moscow jail cell. (Reuters) Kremlin critic Navalny says he may have been poisoned. The nonlethal swelling and skin irritation could have been caused by urushiol, the cause of poison ivy. A subtle warning?
In the case of Kara-Murza, the onset of symptoms occurred in places where the actual exposure was unlikely to have occurred. This implies a time-release preparation, which was first seen in the poisoning of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov with ricin in 1978. Time-release can be accomplished with a carrier pellet, or by the composition of the poison itself. A-234 is not the most potent Novichok; solid forms that dissolve slowly exist that are far more lethal. A grain a few tens of microns diameter, fired at speed into exposed skin, might suffice.
It’s not hard to kill a man. The gem of the Russian technique is the ability to precisely dose for severe illness without actually killing the victim. In the case of Navalny, we do not yet know the Russian intent, which will become clear only on his death or recovery.
Limited tolerance of political opposition in what is essentially a one-party state keeps opponents of the regime visible and controllable, and provides an escape valve for dissent. In the best of times, the rein is easy. When the going gets tough, the reins tighten. Navalny currently positions himself as a pro-Western democratic nationalist. At intervals he has expressed an ethnocentric view of Russia, and associated with the extreme right-wing. This is a threat to the Russian state, which like the Soviet Union, is multi ethnic. See Alexei Navalny, Poisoned? for details.
But why must Navalny be silenced now? Navalny has recently positioned himself as a pro-Western democrat, but his history includes association with the ultra-right. While his impulsive rants are harmless to the Kremlin, Navalny-the-strategist is the ultimate of danger:
- He advocates an end of subsidies to the Caucasus, risking a third Chechen war, and worse.
- To a Russian nationalist, Belarus is part of Russia. A Russian politician has free license to import Belarusian trends for political purpose. In this case, the trend is revolution.
- Navalny’s on-off association with the ultra-right could presage a combination, against Putin, with virulent right-winger Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose party governs in Khabarovsk Krai.
- Should Navalny appropriate the Khabarovsk protests, which are turning into a lasting feature of Russian politics, a breakdown of authority could result with some features from the Caucasus. This is the greatest danger.
The above is mechanism. Now let’s look to the points of a compass:
- In the west, Belarus threatens the importation of 9 millions who want to join the West.
- In the south, the Caucasus, part of which is claimed by Iran, could break away. Immune to cultural absorption or genuine pacification, loyalties of Islamic quasi-states are bought with expensive subsidies, considerable autonomy, and the threat of crushing military power. There was nothing civil in the two Chechen wars.
- In the far east, political unrest is seeded by Khabarovsk over the entire region. An historical fact has recently come alive, with the first signs of China revanchism: parts are claimed by China, as unjustly ceded by the Unequal Treaties.
Only in the north is Russia secure. Cold comfort for the bear. The Kremlin’s anxiety:
Will the center hold?