Behind Alexei Navalny’s mission to displace Vladimir Putin

Published on February 25, 2021 by

Just over two weeks after his poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia, Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny began to respond to the words of his wife Yulia and wake from a drug-induced coma.

As he emerged from what he would later describe as days of appalling hallucinations, he found himself in Berlin’s Charite hospital, where he’d been evacuated for emergency treatment on Aug. 22. He would later recount how he had to be lifted into a chair from his hospital bed and would sit with his mouth open, staring at a single spot on the wall.

In the months that followed, Navalny withdrew to a remote corner of the Black Forest. He used the time to drive himself back to physical fitness with intense workouts and take his war with President Vladimir Putin to a new level: targeting him directly, for the first time, with a video investigation into a lavish Black Sea palace.

Reuters spoke to more than a dozen people who visited Navalny or communicated with him during his almost five months in Germany. They include financial backers, some of Navalny’s top lieutenants and German officials. These people recounted that Navalny never wavered in his single-minded mission to displace Putin, and never entertained staying in the West to wage his campaign from abroad. On the contrary, after concluding that Putin had personally ordered his poisoning, Navalny became even more determined to achieve his goal.

The interviews also shed light on how Navalny kept his political operations going during his brief exile and how supporters financed his emergency care. At least four Russian business and political figures living abroad provided crucial funding.

On Jan. 17, Navalny flew back to Moscow and was immediately arrested for alleged parole violations related to a suspended jail term in an embezzlement case he says was trumped up.

Fallout from Navalny’s poisoning and arrest has convulsed Russia’s relations with the West, already at a post-Cold War low, with Moscow raising the prospect of a rupture in ties with the European Union and the West weighing new sanctions.

Nationwide protests against Navalny’s detention attracted tens of thousands of people in the depths of Russia’s winter. But riot police hit back hard, detaining more than 11,000. Facing such a crackdown, it’s unclear where Navalny’s movement goes next. Some supporters worry it is losing momentum.

Putin, who makes a point of never uttering Navalny’s name, has said Russian state security agents would have “finished the job” if they had wanted to kill Navalny. The Russian leader has said accusations that he ordered Navalny’s murder are part of a U.S.-backed smear campaign targeted at him personally. The Kremlin has even questioned whether Navalny was poisoned at all and queried his sanity.

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