What the Bellingcat report on Alexey Navalny’s would-be killers from the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Navalny’s phone call to one of them reveal about the Kremlin’s prospects in 2021 and beyond.
Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan made the point in the Moscow Times that what the case of Navalny’s poisoning shows is that it is getting increasingly difficult to “name and shame” Russian security agents, which is a cause for concern. Perhaps this is true, but there are important differences between cases like the poisoning of the Skripals or large-scale cyber offensives and Navalny’s poisoning.
For instance the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence whose agents tried to poison the Skripals, is under military command, unlike the FSB or the SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service; its operations are thus considered as a form of warfare – in the case of Skripal, against traitors – and even if an operation fails, the mere understanding that GRU agents came so close to killing a target in a foreign country does half the job: it serves as a warning sign to other would-be defectors and it projects power.
In the case of cyber operations, especially if they are successful, part of the goal is, again, power projection: the feeling of dread instilled in Western policymakers and opinion leaders, of resourceful Russian hackers who can code their way through to the US agency that oversees nuclear weapons. If the hackers turn out to be connected to the civilian intelligence agencies, exfiltrating information through backdoors would even count as simple intelligence gathering, even though it is not unlikely that such information would then be leaked at an opportune moment to serve political goals (which is a legal gray area).
There is, therefore, something to be gained for the Kremlin if security operatives are exposed, even if they are not completely successful. Bellingcat’s report on the FSB hit squad tasked with killing Navalny and especially Navalny’s surreal phone call to Konstantin Kudryavtsev, one of the members of this squad, is different. First, despite the Kremlin’s best efforts to paint him as a foreign asset, an increasing number of Russians know and approve of Navalny (not nearly enough to make him as popular or trusted as Putin of course, but an impressive achievement nonetheless, given the enormous headwind that he faces in the media, and more importantly, his numbers show an upwards trajectory as opposed to the steady fall of Putin’s).
Second, the operation was not partly successful, as in the case of the Skripals; it was a complete failure. The only gain for the Kremlin has been that Navalny is now out of the country with little prospect of returning soon; this came at an enormous price and it is unclear whether it was worth it. The Kremlin likely revels in each New York Times headline – correct or incorrect – about yet another successful “hack” committed by those wily Russians; there is nothing to be gained from CNN’s Clarissa Ward doorstepping, in a ramshackle apartment, the FSB’s Oleg Tayakin – especially when Russian journalists and activists then try to do the same thing.
Navalny’s phone call took the embarrassment a step further by laying bare how easy it was to extract a confession from one of his would-be assassins, while the Russian authorities have squarely refused to even start an investigation. Several local deputies from opposition parties who demanded an investigation into the FSB helped to drive this point home.
Beyond exposing the Kremlin’s lies, the call also fits very well into a narrative that has become increasingly important in Navalny’s communication, namely that Putin’s system is not only corrupt, but also highly incompetent. It is this idea that has helped Navalny’s campaign establish outposts beyond Russia’s biggest urban regions in recent years as citizens across the country started reacting indignantly to misgovernance. Corruption is less of a problem while things go well for most, but for years, they have not, and due to weak federalism and hollowed-out representative institutions, resentment about bad governance has eroded trust in the president.
The third effect is, of course, on foreign policy. With his gutsy response Navalny has just made it very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone in the EU to relativize the Kremlin’s responsibility, advocate a diplomatic thaw with Russia or to argue against the personal sanctions against Putin’s associates that Navalny urged in the European Parliament, especially if the Russian authorities feel like they must go follow Lukashenko’s lead, declare the opposition a foreign-backed enemy and crack down on them significantly more brutally than so far. The downing of Flight MH17 made it impossible for the EU not to introduce sanctions against Russia. Kudryavtsev’s confession might make it impossible not to up the ante.
Between citizens upset about bad governance, a looming social and economic crisis and avenues to a diplomatic thaw with the West cut off, 2021 could indeed, as Navalny quipped, become “the year of blue underpants”.
No Yardstick goes offline for the rest of the year. I will be back in 2021 with more (and more granular) analysis of Russian politics and political economy. Until then, I recommend FPRI’s Bear Market Brief podcast, which recently interviewed me about the years 2020 and 2021 in Russia, Russian federalism, budgeting and how I don’t know anything about the inside of Putin’s head.
You can also read my series of articles on the topical questions of Russian federalism and regional politics on the website of the Institute of Modern Russia.