Other than stinging words of condemnation, what will be Canada’s and the West’s response to the poisoning last month of Alexei Navalny, who as it happens, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s greatest political critic and rival of the moment?
The reaction will apparently be little different than Canada’s and the West’s halfhearted response to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and a slice of eastern Ukraine, which has changed absolutely nothing.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister François Philippe Champagne channelled what passes for rage this week when he said the “outrageous” attack on Navalny had left him “deeply troubled” and that “the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and unacceptable.”
So, take that, Putin. Canada has spoken.
The consequences that arise from this poisoning may be a little harsher this time, if only because Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has tried for years to reason with Putin, may now be so fed up that she will abandon her conciliatory approach toward him and Russia.
“Very difficult questions came up which only the Russian regime can and must answer,” the chancellor said. “Depending on Russia’s answers, Germany will, in consultation with its allies, decide on an adequate common action.”
However, even with Merkel engaged, the most likely outcome is that stiffer trade sanctions and travel bans will be imposed. This may satisfy most westerners but will only leave those Russians who care shaking their heads.
Whatever the penalties, Putin can be expected to swat them aside like he might a few mosquitoes feeding at sunset on the banks of the Volga.
After that, as after previous murders and attempted murders and after Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea and the Donbass and the use of a Russian missile to shoot down a Malaysian jumbo jet over eastern Ukraine, with the loss of 298 lives, a diplomatic slumber will once again set in.
The U.S., even more than Germany, might be able to influence Putin’s behaviour but President Donald Trump’s admiring views of the Russian dictator make that impossible. It is because of this gaping leadership void that Moscow rightly reckons that it can carry out abhorrent acts with impunity, whether at home or abroad.
What it might take to finally energize and unify western leaders to take meaningful actions against Russia is hard to say. All that is obvious now is that Putin seems emboldened.
Russian security officials, whether formally directed to do so by the Kremlin, have for some years now been jailing people who irritate the president and his cronies. A chilling recent tactic has been to assassinate opponents or at least try to.
One of those who was murdered was Boris Nemtsov, who like Navalny, was Putin’s most serious critic when he was killed. A deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, he fell out with Putin over the war in Chechnya and much else. Nemtsov was executed one night in 2015. He took four bullets in the back as he and his girlfriend walked across a bridge only a few hundreds metres away from the walls of the Kremlin.
The clear goal of Putin’s circle, and those who do the dirty work, is not only to try to silence forever those who make trouble for the president, but to “encourager les autres” to shut up — or else. As Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Stalin knew from very different perspectives, terror works.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the most well known early victim of Putin’s state-sponsored intimidation. Jailed on trumped-up charges of tax fraud and stock manipulation after he argued with Putin about government corruption, the oil and mining magnate spent a decade in jail.
Like other Russian exiles, Khodorkovsky found refuge in the United Kingdom. He was lucky. He was not poisoned or shot, which seems to have been the fate of at least six of Putin’s opponents.
German doctors are certain that Navalny was infected with a pernicious military-grade chemical nerve agent developed during the Cold War by Russian chemical warfare scientists. There has been speculation in the British press that the toxin, which is known as “novichuk” or “newcomer,” had been sprinkled in his underwear or his socks.
Underscoring how cynical the Kremlin has become, novichuk, which obviously requires state-level labs and experts, is the same poison that was used two years ago in Great Britain against Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Julia. Skripal was residing in Britain as part of a spy swap with Russia after having served six years of a 10-year sentence for high treason.
Referring to Skripal’s poisoning, Putin told the Financial Times last year that treason was “the most despicable crime that one can imagine.” For added emphasis, he said twice that “traitors must be punished.”
As the Washington Post reported in a story last month that appeared under the headline, “Why poison is the weapon of choice in Putin’s Russia,” the country’s history of using toxins to get rid of rivals goes back at least six centuries. A fairly common Soviet practice, it had not been used much after the Cold War ended in 1990 until Putin came to power 10 years later.
“Poisoning may seem like an archaic way to kill, especially when other Kremlin critics have been gunned down,” the newspaper said. “But the confusion and intrigue the method fosters may be the reason it remains in use.”
The only real question is when and how Russia will use nerve agents or other poisons to eliminate men such as Navalny who dared to try to make a difference.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas