Putin's Poisonous Power Play
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
In the last few weeks, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny fell ill under suspicion of being poisoned. After a period of doubt, the Kremlin allowed Navalny to be moved to Germany to be treated. Yesterday, Angela Merkel confirmed that he had been poisoned using an infamous nerve agent 'Novichok'. This of course is the same agent administered against the Skripals in 2018. Just as the incident in Salisbury, sceptics have pinpointed the Russian government as being behind the incident. Noting the confirmation from German specialists, Angela Merkel noted that there was "unequivocal proof of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group", and that "It was an attempt to silence him. I condemn this in the strongest possible terms on behalf of the entire German government." Condemnation has also followed from other Western states as well as NATO.
If the Kremlin did order the attack, then one has to wonder why they would allow Navalny to be transferred to Germany for treatment. Failure to allow it would of course raise further suspicion, though one surely has to entertain that Putin had anticipated this scenario. More likely, it seems, is that Moscow was aware that Navalny would be transferred, and further was hoping that he would. This daring move acts almost as a signal to Western nations, a show of power. It has hardly been a secret that Putin has been consolidating his control over Moscow since rising to the Presidency in 2000. In the past, he has substituted control with ally Dmitry Medvedev who became President between 2008 and 2012. During such time, Putin became Prime Minister only to regain the Presidency in 2012, and retaining it since. In addition, if one looks to other case studies such as the relatively recent Chinese legislation allowing Xi Jinping presidency for life, and Alexander Lukashenko's continued reign in Belarus, one surely expects Putin to retain his position in some form.
What is of interest, though, is the form of response that the West will take. Ultimately, condemning tweets only go so far, and Merkel's unusually harsh words fall on flat ears when one remembers Germany, and the wider EU's, reliance on Russia for gas. Sanctions seem likely, and a full international investigation will likely be demanded, though if Moscow allows it is another question. This poisoning is a dark indication of what to expect from Moscow in the coming years: both domestically and internationally. Truthfully though, as ever, they are interconnected. Domestic consolidation of power emboldens politicians to act more harshly and boldly internationally, knowing they face little to no friction from their own government. NATO's presence in Eastern Europe will likely be aware of this, though with the economic downturn ensuing, it seems Moscow may just have to bide its time.
At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a fourth year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.