A tough international response to Navalny poisoning will not move the Kremlin

If poisoning is the hallmark of the Russian secret services, then doing it with a military-grade nerve agent from the novichok family is a very clear statement.

The Kremlin was all too aware of the international furore unleashed by the use of novichok on the former GRU agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury two years ago.

That it has been used again so brazenly against the Kremlin’s most prominent adversary Alexei Navalny points to the total indifference those running the show in Russia have towards how they are perceived, both abroad and domestically.

President Putin famously cannot even bring himself to mention Mr Navalny by name.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny fell ill while on a plane in Russia
Image: Alexei Navalny is an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin
Alexei Navalny was transferred from Omsk, Russia to a hospital in Berlin on 22 August
Image: Alexei Navalny fell ill while on a plane in Russia

As the activist’s family battled to get him to Germany, Mr Putin would only refer to Mr Navalny as “the patient”.

“From the advice of spin doctors, Vladimir Putin never uses the names of his enemies”, says the pro-Kremlin political scientist, Sergey Markov.

“Mentioning their name gives them more popularity and credibility.”

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Alexei Navalny is not widely popular in Russia, not least because he has been barred from running in any political capacity.

But his YouTube anti-corruption investigations are exhaustively researched, deeply credible and watched by millions.

They expose late-stage Putinism for the corrupt, crony kleptocracy that it is and any high-level bureaucrat exposed in one of those reports, and there have been many, will have a grudge to bear.

Navalny’s most recent political endeavour was an attempt to unseat candidates from the ruling United Russia party in any upcoming elections.

“Smart Voting” as it’s called – a mechanism to unite the opposition vote behind the strongest alternative candidate – was gathering pace ahead of regional elections on Sunday 13 September.

For the Kremlin, it is an aggravating strategy which they have found no convincing counter-attack for.

Next door in Belarus, popular champions have put the regime on the back foot.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s remarkable pre-election success came down to the fact that she and the two women running alongside her decided to unite the disparate opposition behind one campaign, all three running as one on behalf of the men their president had either barred or imprisoned.

That strategy has caused Alexander Lukashenko unprecedented problems.

President Putin does not want to see that kind of unrest bleed into the Russian sphere, especially with ongoing protest in the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk.

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Mr Navalny has been living on borrowed time since he started sticking his head above the parapet with absolutely no qualms.

Now in this febrile atmosphere for the post-Soviet space comes the reckoning.

The German government is urging the Russian government to explain itself.

Until now Moscow has refused even to open a criminal investigation.

In time-honoured fashion, Russia’s foreign ministry says it needs more information from the German side. Expect this to go on but Russia will clarify nothing.

As has become depressingly clear too, a tough international response – whatever that may end up being – does not result in a shift in the Kremlin’s thinking.

If anything, as Putin has aged, it has hardened.

And as Putinism has aged, it has emboldened those who feel they can act in its name.