Alexei Navalny and the propaganda cold war of the West and Russia
A case so shrouded in propaganda from both sides that you should question anything you read about it.
The relationship between the West and Russia has been frosty of late, beginning with the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. The topic of Russian meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election dominated the political narrative of the Democratic Party for much of the Trump years. After extensive investigations, it is unclear whether Russian interference had a serious (or any) impact on the outcome of the election. Most of the evidence is of propaganda efforts that are not directly linkable to Russian state actors or Putin. The Mueller report did not provide conclusive evidence of collusion with Russia by Donald Trump.
This is of course not to say, that Russian propaganda as disinformation campaigns aimed at promoting Russia’s geopolitical interests is not a real thing. The European External Action Service’s East StratCom Task Force created as a conclusion of the European Council meeting on March 19-20, 2015 operates a website called https://euvsdisinfo.eu/. The site manages a database since 2015, fact-checking Russian media outlets. According to their publication from March 9, Germany is the European country targeted most often by disinformation campaigns, followed by France and Italy. Especially, connections between Russia and European far-right parties should be emphasized here. For example, this Hungarian study, funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation found already back in 2015, that the Russian-friendly communication of the Hungarian far-right “Jobbik” party was not explained by support of Russia among their voters, and thus had to be based on other factors. The study cited three major functions that far-right parties may fill for Russia’s interest: destabilization, provision of external legitimization of the Russian regime and provision of information as well as spread of disinformation. The German AfD also has amicable ties to Russia, prominent representatives of the party often visit Russia for meetings with Russian state representatives, and have also made controversial visits to the annexed Crimea in the past. Another high-profile example of the European far-right’s openness towards Russia may be the 2019 Ibiza-affair of Austrian politician Heinz-Christian Strache, although this turned out to be a set-up without Russian involvement. However, it’s not only European far-right parties with favorable attitudes towards Russian interests - last week I wrote about the political devotion and questionable business ties to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline by many prominent German social-democrats (SPD).
There is, however also direct evidence of anti-Russian propaganda efforts, or “meddling in Russian affairs” by the West. Just recently, explosive reporting by The Grayzone provided an armada of leaked documents of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office sponsoring Reuters and the BBC with multimillion-dollar contracts to promote regime change in Russia through the “ability to respond and to promote our message across Russia”, to “counter the Russian government’s narrative” and with the goal to “weaken the Russian State’s influence on its near neighbours”. (The documents had been released by a hacking group called Anonymous, prompting Twitter to put the newest “These materials may have been obtained through hacking” sticker on links to The Grayzone, which has now become a meme).
Bilateral smear-campaigns against each other’s COVID-19 vaccines appears to be the latest front in the propaganda war between Russia and the West.
The perceived importance of Alexei Navalny
Even though Alexei Navalny has been internationally recognized as a Russian anti-corruption activist for some time, he arguably became internationally famous since the attempt on his life on August 20, 2020. Initially, Navalny gained fame and popularity in Russia by exposing corrupt deals of Putin and Medvedev. Alexei Navalny is often depicted in US and German media as “the most prominent” opposition politician in Russia. When asking independent (leftist) Russian sources, you get a completely different picture. According to them, the overall support of Navalny in Russia is almost universally exaggerated in western reporting and most Russians just don’t care that much or are downright skeptical when it comes to western-oriented Navalny.
Navalny in the front, left at Yale in 2010. Source dw.com
Navalny attended the Yale World Fellows Program for “future leaders” in 2010. He supports privatization and free markets, talking often about helping small business owners while his speeches rarely center on poverty or problems of the working class. Russians remember the nineties all too well, when under the corrupt regime of the US-friendly Boris Yeltsin, former Russian state-owned assets were eagerly looted by western corporations for pennies on the dollar. People have suffered economic hardships haven’t seen in decades. Life quality has improved a lot under Putin and his approval ratings are still the envy of politicians around the world, even though they were impacted to some extent by the arrest of Navalny resulting in a drop from 69 to 65%. Navalny is not even the most trusted opposition politician in Russia, having about half the support that the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov (an actual member of the Duma) enjoys, even though Navalny’s approval rating is growing, especially among younger voters.
Find more statistics at Statista
Even western media acknowledges the overtly nationalistic views that Navalny propagated in the past, including but not limited to calling muslims “cockroaches” and recommending shooting them with guns if swatters and shoes fail. Navalny has refused to distance himself from these views to this day.
A twitter thread by the US-based Russian journalist Katya Kazbek has summarized some of the more controversial views represented by Navalny. The thread included links to Navalny’s past record of nationalist and racist views as well as recounting Kazbek’s own experience of overt racism upon visiting Navalny’s campaign office in 2013. The evidence of Navalny’s past views collected in the thread became very influential, arguably contributing to Amnesty International rescinding Navalny’s “Prisoner of Conscience” status on February 25. The twitter thread has since been closed for the general public, but it has been archived here. In an interview, Kazbek has said the following:
” I want everyone to realize that the overwhelming majority of western journalists are busy communicating their own narrative, which does not have anything to do with the real situation on the ground; however, it too often reflects the opinions of State Departments of NATO countries. (…) The majority of Russian online presence is in Russian and overwhelmingly on VK.com and Telegram. So judging the country by what you hear most often about it is misleading and dangerous. Honestly, I think the same applies to most countries that are not considered allies by the US and EU, but Russia more than others because of this new Cold War we have at hand.”
Kazbek has come under attack as a “Stalinist” and an agent of Russian propaganda for her perspective on Navalny and her writing in RT.com, the Russian state-owned newspaper, about concerns regarding the dominance of nationalist and neoliberal voices among protesters in Belarus. Kazbek says she has received threats of doxxing.
The Navalny poisoning
You can read about the chronology of the Navalny poisoning on wikipedia, and here is a less canonical summary pointing out some inconsistencies, including context on Navalny. Briefly, Navalny got sick on an airplane that was suposed to take him from Tomsk to Moscow. The plane did an emergency landing in Omsk, where Navalny was quickly administered emergency care and survived. Angela Merkel personally intervened to get Navalny transferred to the famous Charité University Hospital in Berlin, where he arrived on August 22. On December 22, the doctors from the Charité treating Navalny published a case report on his clinical course and treatment in the prestigious medical journal “The Lancet”. Clinical signs and general lab results of Mr. Navalny were highly indicative of severe cholinesterase inhibition (effects of the group of poisons that Novichok as well as orgnophosphorous pesticides belong to). Poisoning by a compound from the Novichok group was identified by the Bundeswehr Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology and independently in two other laboratories in France and Sweden from blood and urine samples taken from the day of admission at the Charité, 51 hours after symptom onset. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) classified the poison as a new variant closely resembling formerly known compounds of the Novichok group. According to Navalny himself, his poisoning by Novichok is in itself evidence of the direct involvement of Putin in the attempt on his life, since access to the compound is restricted, and none of the three people competent to order such an attack would act without orders from Putin.
Russian authorities have officially denied these allegations. No indication of poisoning has been found in the initial biological samples taken by Navalny’s Russian doctors in Omsk. In addition, Russians argue, a full cooperation with the German medevac organization, entry into the country and immediate access to the patient for German doctors and hotel accommodation for the crew were provided by the Russian authorities, despite not having received any formal requests through proper diplomatic channels. The above press release by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides a detailed timeline of communications between Russia and Germany in the Navalny case, indicating at multiple time points that Russia was denied data and biological samples by the Europeans to conduct its own investigation. It should also be said that the laboratory data itself identifying the Novichok poisoning is not subject to public or scientific review, it is classified. Navalny’s German doctors also could not provide direct evidence as part of their paper in The Lancet - they are citing the press release from the OPCW as “evidence” of the Novichok poisoning. Vitalii V. Kozak, a Russian neurologist living in Switzerland has sent a letter to the editor of The Lancet, which the journal did not publish. In it, Dr. Kozak is calling attention to some details in the Lancet publication which according to him are not adequately discussed by the paper. These include potential toxicity by lithium found in the patient’s blood, which rather than Novichok could explain some of his symptoms and laboratory findings. Furthermore, he is criticizing that no details are included on decontamination measures, as in other known cases of Novichok poisoning, several other exposed persons required medical attention (of which there is no report in Navalny’s case). Dr. Kozak’s letter was also publicized by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
On December 14, a joined investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider, CNN and Der Spiegel was published, implicating a special unit of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia in Navalny’s poisoning. The investigators have been able to show, that the agents had been tailing Navalny for some time before his poisoning, based on telecom and travel metadata. One of the investigators, Fidelius Schmid told the German radio station “Deutschlandfunk” that the investigation originally had nothing to do with Navalny, but was following up on a lead beginning in Germany that led to several chemical labs in Russia. The telcom metadata had been leaked to the Russian partner “The Insider” by “exceptionally good sources” within Russia. Navalny actually called one of the agents on the telephone, and got him to disclose details of the poisoning - the poison had been apparently applied to Navalny’s underwear. A huge embarrassment to Russian intelligence, no doubt. Putin has as good as confirmed that Russian special services were tailing Navalny.
What approach is best with Russia
The end of the story will be cut short: Navalny is now in a Russian penal colony after having been arrested on January 17 upon returning to Russia for allegedly violating the terms of his probation.
The story of Alexei Navalny has no heroes and in my opinion shows us above all that Russia is a fundamentally different place than our own political systems that we feel comfortable in. Propaganda is, however, state sponsored and present on both sides. Russian propaganda is scrambling to cast at least some amount of doubt on the poisoning of Navalny by Russian state actors. Propaganda in the West is, in the meantime, engaged in a kind of white-washing that tries to show Navalny as a hero and a real opponent to Putin, which is false. The latter for me is important to emphasize, because propaganda that comes from sources that we identify with in our core values is much harder to recognize.
The Tageszeitung has published an interview with Russian historian, domestic and foreign policy expert Andrei Kortunow. In it, he calls the Navalny case a “clear symbol of the gap between the core values of the German and Russian governments”. Germany and other EU democracies value human rights and true political opposition in a country. For Putin, geopolitics and national security are the priority. He does not want to discuss domestic issues, such as how he deals with his opposition with Merkel and the EU (see the case of the three expelled western diplomats, who have attended protests for Navalny). According to Mr. Kortunow, Putin no longer regards the EU as a reliable partner, because he thinks its pluralism and tolerant culture make it weak.
I think, that if Europe and the west want to promote regime change in Russia, we should do it by setting an example. We should not do it by promoting a politician with very questionable values and track record for the sole reason that they promise to play nice with the West if they ever came to power. The European project has taken quite a beating with the refugee crisis, Brexit and now the lagging COVID-19 vaccination - I think we would be better off focusing on these issues, our own social inequalities and climate change. The Russian people don’t seem to want Navalny and most of us would never consider voting for a guy like this in our own elections. His poisoning is regrettable and Russia should be called out on it (and it was). But Russia deserves better than Putin and better than Navalny - and most of all, they deserve to find and elect that person on their own and without interference from western propaganda.