If Navalny was poisoned, unlikely it was by Putin: Italian professor tears down ‘state-sponsored assassination’ theory

Western media wasted no time in accusing the Russian government of attempting to kill protest leader Alexey Navalny with poison, but basic common sense points against the conspiracy theory, an Italian professor has argued.

Navalny fell ill last week during a commercial flight and was rushed to a hospital after his plane made an emergency landing in the Siberian city of Omsk. Days later, he was flown to Germany to be treated at the Charite University Hospital in Berlin. Doctors there said his symptoms indicate poisoning with a cholinesterase inhibitor – a type of chemical encountered in certain medicines, insecticides, and nerve agents.

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© REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva/File Photo
German clinical investigation suggests Moscow protest leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned – hospital statement

Since the first day of Navalny’s ordeal, his inner circle has been accusing President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government of trying to assassinate the activist and of running a cover-up operation after the attempt failed. This narrative was swiftly adopted by mainstream media in the West. Some Western governments threatened to impose a new round of sanctions against Russia over the case.

Yet even if criminal intent is proven in the case, basic common sense undermines the ever-popular formula of ‘poisoning + Russia = Putin’, according to an article published by the Italian magazine Formiche on Saturday. The piece was penned by Igor Pellicciari, Professor of History of International Relations at the University of Urbino, who also teaches at MGIMO University, Moscow’s top school for career diplomats.

The ‘state-sponsored poisoning’ theory has several weaknesses, Pellicciari wrote, starting with the political cost that Navalny’s demise under suspicious circumstances would entail for Moscow. The death of an opposition figure would inevitably be pinned on the Kremlin, prompting sanctions, and further tarnishing its already damaged reputation. It would also fuel domestic discontent, which would be untimely, given that Russia, like many other nations, is currently having to deal with both an economic slowdown and public fatigue with the social distancing measures prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The benefits for removing Navalny from the picture are dubious at best. He may be hailed as the Russian opposition leader by the Western press, but, in reality, he leads a relatively small faction of fractured anti-government forces in Russia. His corruption investigations and organization of protests make him a thorn in the side of the Kremlin, but not a realistic threat to the powers that be, Pellicciari said.

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However, while the motive for a state assassination of Navalny is questionable, the capability of carrying one out is not, which doesn’t sit well with what has actually happened, the professor argued.

Navalny was taken to a hospital in Omsk with all due haste, remaining in Russian doctors’ care for 44 hours and treated with evident success. On arrival, he was given a shot of atropine – a drug that’s effective against certain types of toxins – and reacted so well that the German doctors continued the same treatment after the patient was transferred to their care.

The Russian state had many opportunities to ensure Navalny’s death, if such was its intent, Pellicciari suggested. It could orchestrate a less timely hospitalization or send an assassin to finish the job at the Omsk clinic. It could provide the hitman with a more effective poison from or simply stage an accident rather than use a poison and risk an ugly exposure.

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Anatoliy Kalinichenko, deputy chief doctor of the Omsk hospital of intensive care where Alexei Navalny is hospitalized speaks to the media in Omsk, Russia. © Sputnik / Elena Latipova; inset Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny © REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
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So far Russia resisted foreign pressure to launch a criminal probe into the situation. Pellicciari believes Navalny may have been a victim of a crime, but if that is the case it is not likely that the hit was ordered from the top echelons of the Russian government. Navalny is a divisive figure and has plenty of lower-caliber enemies, both Russian officials and private citizens, Pellicciari said.

A state assassination would look more like the mysterious plane crash that killed Italian politician Enrico Mattei in 1962, he added.

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