Two years ago, British intelligence alleged that Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU, used a nerve agent from the Novichok family — an exotic Soviet-developed class of chemical weapons — to poison one of its former spies, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia. Depending on whom you ask, the operation was either a tremendous failure — the only death was that of a U.K. woman who was exposed to the poison by accident, and both Skripals recovered — or a very successful, very public message to Russia’s spies about the consequences of becoming a turncoat.
On Wednesday, the German government revealed that a similar nerve agent was used against Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger who has risen to become Russia’s best-known opposition figure. After more than a decade of investigating corruption in the highest levels of Russian business and government, Navalny is no stranger to state-led or -approved retribution: He and his family have been the subject of multiple trumped-up charges of fraud, street-level violence and even a (relatively) mild poisoning while in prison. Even through the lens of Navalny’s near-Jobian decade in Russia, the use of an exotic and deadly nerve agent such as Novichok marks a nearly unthinkable escalation in the Kremlin’s campaign against him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is often carelessly portrayed as the singular force behind all violent actions carried out by Russia’s state organs and its proxies. This picture is overly simplistic, as the Russian state — just as in America — is not monolithic, encompassing a number of competing actors pushing and pulling for influence. But who else bears responsibility for the clear pattern of impunity and flagrant assassinations carried out by Russia’s competing factions and intelligence services?
In the most generous reading, we can say Vladimir Putin is a leader in name only with no control over his state apparatus and underlings. In a less generous, and more realistic, reading, we can say Putin allows and may even personally authorize these assassinations against both his own people and his perceived enemies abroad, now including the most prominent domestic opposition figure he has faced throughout his period of rule.