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Putin’s Assassin Toolkit Claims Navalny


Navalny’s sudden death carries all the hallmarks of the Putin regime. The Kremlin won’t take responsibility because it doesn’t need to.

Every time a Putin opponent is killed — a journalist, a politician, or an activist — the Kremlin presents the same line of defense: the victim was so insignificant that Putin would hardly have bothered to bloody his hands organizing their termination.

Sometimes the Kremlin’s spin doctors might elaborate on that — who knows? — there might be some uncontrolled group, in the army, in wider Russian society, who could have taken it upon themselves to rid the nation of a troublemaker. But Putin and the Kremlin had nothing to do with that.

More than 20 years of Putin’s rule now provides a pretty good case study to demonstrate that political assassination makes perfect sense and that Putin, being a very practical man, embraced the strategy years ago. A whole panoply of assassination methods are part of his political toolkit.

In this dark marketing strategy, where Putin is the main product, the leader is sold to Russia as the nation’s only possible leader and as a man who must have the power of life and death. No one really doubts this — and the Kremlin does little to dispute it.

The use of assassination, the reaction of the Kremlin, and the narrative promoted in pro-Kremlin media — all help to calibrate the effects on a target audience.

There is always a very practical reason to attack a victim with poison or bullets — or to torture them to death in a prison camp beyond the Arctic Circle.  

In September 2004, when hundreds of reporters, including the authors of this piece, arrived at Beslan, where terrorists had taken hostage more than 1,000 people in a school, most of them children, Putin’s people were busy organizing journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s poisoning.

Politkovskaya had been on her way to Beslan hoping to negotiate a hostage release. She didn’t make it to Beslan since FSB agents poisoned her on a plane. She was rushed to hospital.

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By essentially removing her from the Beslan drama, the FSB ensured negotiations failed, and more than 300 hostages were killed. It was a horrible tragedy, but the Russian authorities got what they wanted; which was not to talk to terrorists or reach any sort of deal. Putin would have regarded that as a humiliation.

Two years later Politkovskaya was shot dead by an assassin in Moscow in broad daylight. The killer’s name hardly mattered; everyone knew who had masterminded the murder. Its purpose? To tell journalists that they should abandon coverage of Chechnya and what the authorities were doing there. It was a very practical matter.

The same year Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer, who had exposed the FSB’s crimes and defected to the UK, was also poisoned, this time with a radioactive substance. Not many doubted that Putin personally planned this assassination too.

The horrifying photos of the dying Litvinenko on his London hospital deathbed intimidated and terrified many Russians critical of the Kremlin. They understood that Putin could find and eliminate his enemies not only in Russia but also abroad. Again, it was a strong message — Putin’s security services had a long arm, just like Stalin’s assassins. So please, no more whistleblowers.

In 2015, Boris Nemtsov joined the parade of the dead. He was a household name in Russia: he had been the youngest governor and a deputy prime minister when Putin was still a nondescript official.  

Nemtsov became an opposition leader, the only one back then who had the political weight to challenge Putin because in the late 1990s Yeltsin had blessed him as his successor. Nemtsov was killed not with poison but with a bullet, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Once again, Kremlin messaging was unambiguous.

The slow murder of Alexey Navalny, forever moved between brutal Russian penal colonies, ever northward to ever-more ghastly conditions, eventually beyond the Arctic Circle, was also a well-calibrated strategy.

The memory of Stalin’s Gulag archipelago is burnt into the Russian DNA. Navalny’s horrible final journey into the remotest parts of Russia’s vastness was a certain means to evoke those memories.

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe’s Edge

CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.

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