20 years under Putin: a timeline

The past week in Russian politics unraveled like a three-part drama. On December 14, the investigation into the poisoning of Alexei Navalny was released, showing that the FSB was behind the attempt on his life. On December 17, Vladimir Putin admitted the surveillance of the oppositionist, but denied the involvement of the special services. On December 21, the recording of Navalny’s conversation with an FSB officer who had unwittingly revealed the details of the poisoning operation was made public, leaving no doubt about the veracity of the investigation. While Navalny’s exposés have dealt a severe blow to the Putin regime, the question of their impact on Russian society remains open.

 

Eight FSB operatives exposed by Navalny's investigation. Upper row (left to right): Alexei Alexandrov, Oleg Tayakin, Mikhail Shvetz, Stanislav Makshakov. Lower row: Konstantin Kudryavtsev, Ivan Osipov, Alexei Krivoshchekov, Vladimir Panayev. Phoro: navalny.com. 

 

Events

The investigation into the poisoning (on August 20) of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was conducted by Bellingcat journalists in conjunction with The Insider and the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and released on December 14. The materials were also shared with Western publications—CNN, Der Spiegel, and El País—for fact-checking and further circulation in other languages.

It is now clear that the authors of the investigation had a strategic plan to release the materials in two parts to maximize the media impact. The main investigation, which revealed the names and photographs of eight operatives—FSB officers and doctors—involved in the secret operation to poison Navalny, and also named the Russian president as the mastermind, came out a few days prior to the Direct Line annual phone-in with Vladimir Putin, which had been scheduled for December 17. In the video version of the investigation, Navalny suggested that the criminals caught red-handed would erupt in “hysteria of incredible proportions,” and the state propagandists would “just explode on the air,” but this did not happen. There was no official comment from the Kremlin, and state media refrained from covering the investigation. The only exception was a short remark by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a press conference in Zagreb, where he said he was “amused to read” the news about Navalny’s investigation and dismissed the journalists’ conclusion—that the Kremlin’s silence is a sign of guilt—as a “flawed” approach.

During the Direct Line broadcast, Putin’s answer to a staged question about Navalny predictably produced little meaning. Dismissing the investigation itself as “the legalization of US intelligence,” and traditionally avoiding calling his political opponent by name, the president cynically concluded: “Who needs him? If they wanted to [poison him], they would have done so.”

Analysis of Putin’s propaganda points lays bare three classic public-opinion manipulation techniques. The first is not to dispute provable facts (i.e. the fact of surveillance), while distorting other information (the Russian special services could not have worked so unprofessionally—they just did not need to do it at all). The second is to discredit the source (i.e. pointing to Navalny’s alleged ties with the West, playing into the target audience’s negative sentiment). The third is to call to mind the existence in Russia of a rigid political hierarchy, within which no one has the right to communicate with the president on an equal footing, let alone challenge him.

Navalny himself regarded the president’s words as an admission of guilt: “Putin admitted everything. In his own style (CIA-CIA), but admitted all. He realized that it is impossible to deny our rock-solid evidence.” In all fairness, however, Putin’s only “confession” was confirming that the special services had surveilled the oppositionist. The lack of proof that they were the ones who actually poisoned Navalny granted the Kremlin plausible deniability and kept the mask of innocence intact.

Perhaps for this reason, in the unfolding public discourse, journalists and experts focused on rather narrow issues: 1) journalists being allowed to access databases (telephone call billings, geolocation tags), which much of the investigation is built on; 2) the reasons for the Russian special services’ unprofessionalism; 3) the investigation’s consequences, potentially quite negative, for the Putin regime. At the same time, there were no attempts in the discussion to grasp and process the realities of modern Russia, in which the head of state could perfectly well order the elimination of a political rival with the help of chemical weapons.

The recording of a telephone conversation, released on December 21, between Navalny and Konstantin Kudryavtsev, a military chemist at the FSB Institute of Forensic Science and one of the persons implicated in the poisoning operation, dealt a serious blow to the Kremlin’s confidence and to observers’ skepticism. During a 45-minute prank call, in which Navalny introduced himself as an aide to Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Kudryavtsev confirmed almost all the facts of the investigation, detailing his own participation and the roles of other operatives. Two days after the recording was released on Navalny’s YouTube channel, it had been viewed over 17 million times.

The fact that additional evidence featuring a confession of one of the direct participants in the crime, thus cementing the original investigation’s claims, was released after Putin’s Direct Line is a brilliant finale to the authors’ strategic plan. For 24 hours following the publication of the recording, the Kremlin’s official response was deafening silence. The only agency that commented on the issue was the FSB, which called the recording a provocation and a fake, carried out with the help of foreign intelligence.

 

Consequences

In theory, the publication of such an investigation is sufficient basis for initiating a criminal case. However, the poisoning of a Russian citizen on the territory of the Russian Federation means that Navalny’s case is under Russian jurisdiction. As it became obvious in the first days after the assassination attempt, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office sees no reason to open a criminal investigation, a decision made at the highest level in the Kremlin. 

Nevertheless, some opposition members are trying to use the few legal mechanisms still available to them. On December 16, deputies of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly Maxim Reznik, Mikhail Amosov, and Boris Vishnevsky filed an official request to the FSB director, Alexander Bortnikov, demanding to verify the Bellingcat investigation’s facts and initiate a criminal case under Article 277 of Russia’s Criminal Code (“encroachment on the life of a state or public figure”). Similar requests were also sent to the FSB by opposition deputies from Moscow, Pskov, Karelia, and other regions of Russia.

These requests are unlikely to be considered. The FBK’s lawyers had already filed a statement to the FSB regarding a crime under Article 355 of the Criminal Code (“development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition or sale of weapons of mass destruction”), but no procedural decision was made about it, which forced the FBK to file a complaint about the FSB’s inaction to a Moscow court. On November 25, the court predictably dismissed the claim.

While an international investigation into Navalny’s poisoning is impossible, legal mechanisms still exist under the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to which Russia is a party. Chemical weapons are prohibited by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and Novichok agents, used to poison Navalny, were included in the CWC’s list of controlled substances in November 2019. Violation of the convention creates grounds for investigation and prosecution of any group of persons guilty of using chemical weapons anywhere in the world. 

On October 6, the OPCW published its expert evaluation of Navalny’s medical tests, once again confirming the presence in his body of biomarkers of a cholinesterase inhibitor structurally similar to Novichok agents. At the November 30 meeting of the OPCW in the Hague, 56 countries, led by the EU and the United States, issued a joint statement recognizing the OPCW’s findings and calling on Moscow to hand over all the relevant information to the experts of the organization. Two more countries joined the appeal on the following day.

Initially, the Kremlin denied both the presence of chemical weapons on its territory, referring to the country’s receipt of an OPCW certificate for the destruction of its chemical arsenal, as well as the fact that a Novichok agent was used against Navalny. However, the emergence of irrefutable evidence forced Moscow to seek a different explanation—and the idea that Navalny had been poisoned outside Russia was put forward.

The current Russian regime will never admit the existence of its chemical weapons program, therefore it is difficult to imagine any real cooperation between Russia and the OPCW. The Kremlin’s strategy at the moment is two-pronged: lobbying the narrative that OPCW is biased against Russia, and accusing the West of “politicizing” the organization’s work.

Another tool for putting pressure on the Kremlin is sanctions. On October 14, the EU countries and the UK sanctioned six high-ranking Russian officials, including the FSB head, Alexander Bortnikov, and the first deputy chairman of the presidential administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, as well as one organization—the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOKhT). On October 20, the United States, which in recent years has actively opposed the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, introduced additional sanctions against this project lobbied by the Kremlin. Some experts were skeptical about the cause-effect relations between these measures and the poisoning of the Russian oppositionist, especially since the construction of the gas pipeline, which is back by the German government, continues

Navalny himself called on Western leaders to focus sanctions on the president’s inner circle, whom he described as “a group of criminals who have temporarily seized power in Russia.” According to the oppositionist, it is not officials or intelligence officers who need to be punished, but wealthy Russian oligarchs, such as Alisher Usmanov or Roman Abramovich, who own real estate and bank accounts throughout Europe and make a mockery of sanctions. The overwhelming majority of Russians, he said, would support such measures.

 

Cleanup

Moscow formally demonstrated its adherence to international rules by making a request to the OPCW for technical assistance to investigate the Navalny incident. The head of the OPCW, Fernando Arias, agreed to provide such assistance; however, as follows from the official correspondence, Russia must agree to the OPCW experts’ terms of the visit, but has not yet done so. For instance, it needs to get Navalny’s consent to access his medical records, including biomedical samples. A curious detail of the correspondence is the obvious attempt by Russia’s Permanent Representative to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, to expedite the visit to Russia in the runup to the release of the Navalny investigation. The diplomat personally phoned Arias on December 4, insisting that the OPCW experts visit Russia no later than December 11. In his reply, Arias reiterated the terms that Russia must fulfill before technical assistance can be provided. 

In the public domain, Moscow continues to build a narrative of Western hostility. As IMR previously explained, Russian officials’ complaints, which are often articulated by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, focus on developments around the requests of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office to the German justice authorities. The first request for documents about Navalny’s transportation to Germany and his poisoning was made on August 27 on the basis of the European Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. However, according to the convention, Germany is obligated to offer assistance to Russia only if the latter opens its own criminal case into Navalny’s poisoning (the pre-investigation probe conducted by the Prosecutor General’s Office does not constitute a criminal case). But, since the Prosecutor General’s Office in Russia sees no grounds for a criminal investigation, this formally exempts Berlin from fulfilling its obligations under this treaty.

Throughout September and in early October, the Prosecutor General’s Office sent three more requests to Berlin, whose unresponsiveness created PR opportunities for Russian officials to lament Germany’s dismissive behavior. On October 30, German law enforcement agencies finally responded with its own request for clarification on the Navalny case. Calling Berlin’s actions “delaying ... the execution of requests for legal aid,” the Russian authorities sent their fifth request to their German counterparts, which was fulfilled on December 17: during Putin’s Direct Line, the German Prosecutor’s Office questioned Navalny and his wife Yulia.

In mid-November, Russia also put forward its own interpretation of the convention, claiming that the treaty does not formally indicate at which stage of criminal proceedings (pre-investigation probe or opening of a criminal case) its provisions can be applied. According to Moscow, this means that Berlin’s refusal to comply with the requests of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is “untenable.”

The Russian authorities will continue to use bureaucratic resources and diplomatic communication with Berlin to fuel the anti-Russia narrative. Germany, where Alexei Navalny is undergoing rehabilitation, should prepare for a long positional political struggle.

 

Society

In an interview with Echo of Moscow radio station last week, Navalny stressed that “there is no ‘international gendarme’ who could do something,” even if the use of chemical weapons against him is proven. Therefore, he sees his task in informing Russian citizens. Navalny also expressed this idea in his latest video by addressing his viewers: “You and I have pushed them against the wall. There is now more than enough evidence, but I cannot present it to the court, I can only present it to the citizens of Russia ... [Putin] lies on Direct Line, uses all the newspapers and all TV networks in the country to spread his lies. We can only answer by telling the truth. Take part in this. Let the whole country ask Putin why there is no investigation.”

Navalny’s logic is clear: informed citizens make informed decisions, which is one of the requisites of a free democratic society. The problem is that, as psychology studies have shown, humans are a quite irrational species. According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff, about 98 percent of brain activity occurs unconsciously, and voluminous data processed thereby has a huge impact on people’s conscious rationalization of their actions and views, which most do not even realize. Drawing on research in cognitive psychology, Lakoff, for example, explains the differences between conservative and liberal views in his book Moral Politics. He argues that much depends on which family model was adopted by a person at an early age—the “strict father” model or the “nurturing family” one. Each of these models is related to its own values system ​​that determines a person’s identity. Still, most people are not aware of this and therefore are not able to challenge their core beliefs and worldviews.

In the “strict father” model, the head of the family has unquestioning moral authority and the highest virtue, he is the authority who dictates the rules, disciplines, and maintains a rigid hierarchy. His approval is the ultimate truth. For people who have internalized this model, loyalty to the “strict father” (or other authority) and adherence to his moral code trump the objective facts, while challenges to this worldview threaten their identity.

The political system is, in a sense, a metaphor for the family. A tough, authoritarian, patriarchal system like Russia’s current regime is a vivid illustration of the “strict father” model, where a significant part of the population invariably approves the president’s work. The Putin regime has so far shown resilience, despite Navalny’s videos that have millions of views and other high-profile investigations exposing government corruption, and despite, paradoxically, the declining presidential ratings and growing public discontent.

Commenting on Putin’s Direct Line, sociologist Denis Volkov notes that henceforth the regime will increasingly “rely on the social groups that are most dependent on the state—state employees, pensioners, security officials.” “For these groups, the authoritarian nature of the Russian government is quite natural and customary: it must be tough, boorish, non-transparent,” writes Volkov. According to the sociologist, such a strategy, however, leads to “deepening polarization, increasing conflict and enmity.” 

The growing popularity of YouTube channels is catalyzing political discourse within a younger and more liberal segment of Russian society, where people have information at their fingertips. However, the question of when this awareness finally translates into political change in Russia remains open.

 

Russia under Putin

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