by Gordon M. Hahn
As in so may others nowadays it is not so important – for political analysis and forecasting, leaving aside moral and legal justice – who stands behind the criminal attempt to assassinate Alexei Navalnyi, one of Russia’s leading opposition figures, poisoned on a plane or at an airport on a trip to Omsk, Siberia. More important is how that crime will be perceived or claimed to be perceived and what actions and policies will follow from those real and feigned perceptions. Addressing the ‘who’, in my book suspects in order of most to least probable are: (1) Hardline traditionalist ‘bashnya Kremlya‘ siloviki faction in the Kremlin and/or neofascists in society; (2) Ukrainian siloviki and/or neofascists; (3) a personal vendetta by a rogue silovik (Zolotov) or businessman (Usmanov); (4) Putin; and (5) a non-Ukrainian foreign intelligence service. Let’s take in turn the arguments for and aganst each of these possibilities. I have left aside such ‘rich’ hypothetical suspects such as the Chinese, Trump, Bill Gates, and Pushkin.
(1) Hardline traditionalist faction, a ‘bashnya Kremlya’, siloviki and/or neofascists in society
Hardline traditionalist faction, a ‘bashnya Kremlya’ (a tower, i.e. a faction) of the Kremlin, such as the siloviki (GRU, SVR, FSB), and/or neofascists in society. In this version, one can hypothesize that hardline traditionalist, anti-Western elements in the intelligence and security organs or (less likely without help of the previous) among such elements, such as neofascists, in society have an interest in driving the wedge between Putin and the West as deep as possible in order to prevent any rapprochement to which ‘crazy’ US President Donald Trump might be open. The greater the tensions, the greater the silovikis’ own job and personal security, as Putin or any successor will be blocked from implementing any détente. Moreover, with elections — local this year and then the federal election cycle including 2024 presidential elections — in the offing, Lukashenko’s Belarus about to totter, and US elections, what better time to escalate the new cold war in the silovikis’ traditionalist and their security culture and vigilance norm, often already paranoid leaving aside the sad and provocative record of ost-Cold War Western Russia policy.
Radical nationalists or traditionalist statists in society, perhaps with ties to a Kremlin ‘bashnya’ or even independently are also a real possibility. Navalnyi once moved in nationalist circles and may have some old, radicalizing enemies. In this scenario 1b, the societal nationalists would likely be the perpetrators for the mastermind zakazchiks (those who ordered and paid for the crime) among the siloviki.
Because the attack came in Russia and if Novichok was used, then this hypothesis involving Russia is the more likely than hypothetical perpetrator(s) under scenario 2: Ukrainian secret services and/or Ukrainian neofascists.
(2) Ukrainian siloviki and/or neofascists
The SBU or another Ukrainian law enforcement department, such as the GRU or MVD, perhaps in league with hired neofascists to carry out the attack could be behind the Navalnyii attack. This, in my view, is the second most likely suspect or set of suspects. One asks: ‘But what about Novichok? Only Russia has it. Not true; long ago debunked. Novichok is made in several countries, though not Ukraine, and likely available on the black market.
Potential Ukrainian sets of conspirators have the same main motive as the Russian in scenario 2—to drive an already well-embedded wedge deeper into the polarized relations between Russia and the West. Ukrainian siloviki and neofascists oppose the Minsk 2 peace process and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s efforts to negotiate peace in Donbass and would like to get their hands on Western offensive weapons towards a future offensive against Donbass and much later to return Crimea to the Ukrainian fold. The attack on Navalnyi performs these functions for them. In this regard it is important to note the prominent role of Ukrainians in almost all the Western-Russian scandals since 2014 (see below).
(3) A personal vendetta by a rogue silovik (Zolotov) or businessman (Usmanov)
Both Russian National Guard commander Viktor Zolotov and oligarch Alisher Usmanov have called out Navalnyi to duel and harshly criticized him, filing a law suit, respectively, in response to Intern publications by Navalnyi’s RBK exposing corruption on each of their part. Navalnyi has stepped on the toes of many others, and some of them could be ‘worthy’ suspects. Someone like Zolotov is himself, of course, a silovik, and that opens up the possibility that he sought and perhaps procured a ‘krisha‘ (higher-standing protector) to protect him from investigation if he decided to attack Navalnyi. And, of course, one potential ‘krisha’ for him could be his long-time associate and now boss, Putin.
Potentially, Putin could be involved either as a krisha or zakazchik, but kinetically this is unlikely. He could become what he has been in several previous high profile assassination cases: a passive krisha after the fact. As such, he would simply refuse to get involved but know or strongly suspect that someone, even someone in official circles or even not far from his own inner circle — e.g., Zolotov — participated in the crime. He might do this to protect himself against one or another Kremlin or near-Kremlin grouping or to balance inter-factional infighting that could surround such an assassination. The German government announced its military laboratory has concluded that Navalnyi was poisoned by a Novichok agent as supposedly the Skrypals were in Salisbury, England. They survived but have not been seen for over three years ago, when they were last seen in British law enforcement custody. Contrary to the dominant Western view that Novichok use against Navalnyi confirms that Putin ordered or approved this latest assassination attempt (and hopefully it will remain just that – an attempt, a failed one), it seems to this observer that if Novichok was used, then it becomes even less likely that Putin had a role in this crime.
First, this smacks of the curious ‘signature’ of Russian language text included in the code of Fancy Bear software allegedly involved in the 2015 allegedly Russian hacking of the DNC. It appears to be an attempt to point the figure at the Kremlin and likely Putin. Second, one needs to ask oneself if there is any logic or benefit for Putin not just in general but particularly in the context of the Kremlin’s efforts to explain for three years that it had nothing to do with the Novichok attack in England. Does it make sense to deploy Novichok again inside Russia in what inevitably would be a high-profile assassination. If news got out Novichuk was the poison, then everyone would say as everyone is saying that the use of the same agent against a Putin opponent inside Russia proves Putin used against the Skrypals in England. Third, does it make sense to use Novichok against Navalnyi if it failed to do the job against the Skrypals? Fourth, if Putin ordered or approved the attack, then why would he allow Navalnyi to be sent to Germany so he could be examined by Western doctors who would inevitably discover that Novichok was the agent used? Finally, as in all the Putin era cases involving poisoning, one wonders why risk the failure and unmasking of the crime by using this messy method. Would not it be easier to just seize the target, shoot him and dump the body in incinerator, the ocean, a lake, a river?
Given that the Skrypals have disappeared now for over three years, so we can not be sure of what happened in Salisbury, that the Steel Dossier was a hoax of the highest order and that Skrypal worked at Steele’s Orbis and may have played a role in drafting the dossier, that the Russian hack was never proven even by Crowdstrike which allegedly proved it, that Manaforte never worked for Putin but for Yanukovych as did the Democratic Podestas, that there was no impeachable or non-impeachable quid pro quo in Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy, that Carter Page was not a Russian intelligence asset but rather a CIA asset, that the Maidan demonstrators were shot not by Yanukovych’s riot police but by the Maidan’s radical neofascist elements, that Russians did not pay the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers, and finally it is now highly likely that the supposed Wagner mercenaries arrested in Belarus were not sent there by the Kremlin but were lured there by the Ukraine’s former KGB, the Security Service of Ukraine or SBU, what do we have? It is probably worth pointing out that in all of the above misdirections – with the exception of the Skrypals (and they may be tied to the dossier and thus indirectly to Ukraine’s also involved in it) and the Russia-Taliban story – there is one common denominator: Ukraine and/or the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. Whether it is the Chalupas, Alperovitch, Yaroslav Sherstuk, Artyom Sytnik, Sergei Leshchenko, Vasili Filipchuk, Igor Danchenko, Alexander and Yevgenii Windman (Vindman), or Vasilii Burba, we find Ukrainians everywhere.
We have many, many witnesses who have come forward saying that the Maidan’s neofascist element shot at both security police and demonstrators on 20 February 2014 and not the security forces of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The latter was overthrown as a result of the mobilization of demonstrators and the collapse of an agreement signed the same that potentially could have ended the regime-opposition standoff both caused by the snipers’ false flag operation (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/03/09/the-real-snipers-massacre-ukraine-february-2014-updatedrevised-working-paper/; https://gordonhahn.com/2017/11/17/foreign-involvement-in-february-2014-maidan-terrorist-sniper-attack/; and Ivan Katchanovski’s works on the subject). The Maidan snipers’ massacre took place less than seven years ago. For comparison, in power for twenty years a period in which Putin has according to many vices been behind ten or more murders and several attempted murders at home and abroad, yet not one former Kremlin insider or participant in these crimes has come forward to accuse Putin or his closest colleagues of having been involved in any of them. This seems odd. Moreover, in no case do we have any evidence that Putin gave such an order or a wink or nod to kill so-and-so, and in most there seems no good reason why Putin would have taken such a risky step and many reasons these crimes were detrimental to Putin and his personal and policy goals.
Could Putin have ordered a backed such an attack, but the decision to use Novichok was undertaken by the siloviki and for the purposes as outlined in scenario 2? Possibly, but highly unlikely as stated.
(5) A non-Ukrainian foreign intelligence service
I found it even less likely that a Western security service would make a sacrifice of Navalnyi for the effort to discredit Putin. First, such an operation would break what is left of morality in Western politics. Someone responds: ‘The deep state?’ Such an operation deep inside Russia would be too risky and would be a catastrophe if uncovered by Russian intelligence. Belarus? More possible. Such perhaps could be hoped to be taken as a ‘gift’ or ‘perform a service’ ostensibly for Putin. By exacerbating already bad Western-Russian relations Lukashenko could be more sure of Russian support in any showdown with the mounting opposition set to overthrow him or force him into extrication talks and retirement any day now.
In terms of consequences, there was never any doubt that as soon as a poisoning was confirmed, the consequences for future Western-Russians, especially U.S.-Russian relations would be grave: more sanctions, scuttling any Trump-Putin mini-summit, say, in New York surrounding the UN opening session, a delay if not cancellation of North Stream (a problem for Ukraine and an object of fierce US lobbying of Europe to block completion), among others. This raises the stakes in Moscow, Washington and Brussels in the Belarus crisis and delays for the mid-term any progress on Donbass, while the Wagner scandal destabilizes Ukrainian-Belarusian relations. All this increases the likelihood of a NATO-Russian standoff in Belarus and/or Ukraine and means a deepening of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. The world continues to split apart into two camps (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/10/27/the-russian-american-cultural-ideational-contention/ and https://gordonhahn.com/2018/03/12/implications-of-pew-study-on-major-threat-perceptions-around-the-globe/).
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021). Previously, he has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.