The leader of the opposition to the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin became violently ill on an airplane and had to be removed and taken to the hospital after the plane made an emergency landing.
Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Putin and a leader of Russia’s anti-corruption movement, is said to be in a coma and on life support. Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, told a Russian radio station that he must have consumed poison in a cup of tea he drank at the airport cafe before boarding his flight back to Moscow.
During the flight, Navalny started sweating and asked her to talk to him so that he could “focus on the sound of a voice.” He then went to the bathroom and lost consciousness, and has been in a coma in grave condition ever since.
Putin’s opponents are sure he was responsible.
“We are sure that the only people that have the capability to target Navalny or myself are Russian security services with definite clearance from Russia’s political leadership,” Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the protest group Pussy Riot, who ended up in intensive care after suspected poisoning in 2018, told The Associated Press. “We believe that Putin definitely is a person who gives that go-ahead in this situation.”
It’s very possible that Putin or some in the Russian government wanted Navalny out of the way. But Navalny was exposing corruption all over Russia, including Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko is accusing Navalny of organizing unprecedented mass protests against his re-election that have destabilized his regime. Or it may be one of the numerous oligarchs Navalny has exposed.
But Putin is a prime suspect, simply because he’s done it many times before. In 2018, Pyotr Verzilov, another prominent Kremlin critic, was rushed to the hospital suffering from similar symptoms as Navalny. He survived the ordeal probably because he was flown to Berlin for treatment. Doctors are preventing Navalny’s wife from transferring him to another hospital.
According to Yarmysh, they initially refused to let Navalny’s wife, Yulia, see her husband and have rejected requests for documentation that would allow him to be transferred to a European hospital for treatment.
Navalny’s doctor, Yaroslav Ashikhmin, told the independent Meduza outlet that he was trying to arrange the opposition leader’s transfer to a clinic in Hanover or Strasbourg.
The secretary general of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, Paul Ziemiak, has offered Germany’s help in providing medical treatment for Navalny.
In addition to Navalny and Verzilov, there have been several other opposition leaders and Putin critics who have actually been assassinated by poisoning. This was not a tactic of the KGB in Communist Russia. In the old days, the KGB would try to make the deaths seem accidental—a fall from a building or a car accident.
But poisoning political opponents sends a clear message: It’s not healthy to criticize Putin. What makes Putin’s murders so astonishing is that he doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks. Indeed, what can other countries do to Russia that isn’t already being done? Putin knows that the world is paralyzed — and not a little frightened — by his openness with regard to using assassination as a tool of state power.
In truth, Navalny and other Russian opposition leaders are tilting at windmills. They haven’t a ghost of a chance unseating Putin or limiting his enormous power. As long as Putin controls the media and the electoral machinery, he can continue to rule as he wishes until the day of his death.