Russia: poison drama reveals Germany’s powerlessness against Putin

He is in a “serious but stable condition”: one of the doctors who are currently fighting for the life of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny said on Thursday. The Kremlin critic is in a coma, his confidants assume that he has been poisoned. The opposition was on research in Siberia.

After drinking a cup of black tea at the Tomsk airport, his health reportedly deteriorated rapidly. He lost consciousness on the plane and the machine finally had to make an emergency landing. His team now wants to ensure that Navalny is flown to Germany and treated at the Berlin Charité. But the Russian doctors are cross – according to them, the health of the Kremlin critic is not stable enough for a transport.

It is still unclear whether Navalny was actually poisoned. The drama about the opposition is likely to mark another point in the difficult relationship between the local government and Russia.

German-Russian relationship in “one of the deepest crises in years”

“The German-Russian relationship is in one of the deepest crises in years,” said Russia expert Stefan Meister in an interview with FOCUS Online. Various incidents have caused relations between the Kremlin and Germany to cool down in recent years. For example the “Tiergarten Murder” that occurred in Berlin in 2019. At that time the Georgian Tornike K. was shot in the street – apparently on behalf of a Russian secret service.

The Federal Government’s answer: Two diplomats were expelled, a Russian citizen was charged. Heiko Maas said in June that “further measures are being prepared”. For Meister, who works as a Fellow Associate at the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP), it was a “far too soft reaction”. Bernd Schmidtbauer, secret service coordinator under Helmut Kohl, also criticized the Chancellor in December last year to the “Bild”: “Merkel’s behavior is an embarrassment for Germany! We let Putin get away with everything.”

Expert on the Navalny case: “Germany would only make itself vulnerable”

With a view to the Navalny drama, Germany currently has few options for action, emphasizes Russia expert Meister. The federal government has no choice but to offer treatment of the Kremlin critic in the Charité. Because: “The facts are currently far too vague. Ultimately, Germany would only make itself vulnerable if sanctions were imposed on Russia without concrete evidence,” he says.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) recently called for a quick explanation of the background: “What is very, very important now is that it is urgently clarified: How did this situation come about? We will insist on that.” According to the master, however, that should be difficult. “In order to shed light on the darkness, the Russian authorities would have to cooperate,” he says. A look at the Tiergarten murder shows how difficult it can be to work with the Kremlin.

Russia has also shown itself to be uncooperative in the Tiergarten murder

Because even a year after the incident, there are still numerous unanswered questions. Federal Foreign Minister Maas said after his visit to Moscow: “There were a total of 17 inquiries from the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the Federal Intelligence Service, the Foreign Office and the Federal Chancellery, which did not help us or remained unanswered.”

Another attack recently made headlines around the world: the poisoning of former double agent Sergej Skripal and his daughter Julia in March 2018 in Salisbury, England. Both narrowly escaped death. Western intelligence agencies accuse the Russian government of instigating the attack in retaliation for Skripal’s work as a double agent. However, this assumption has not yet been proven.

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“He has many enemies in Russia, including among the oligarchs”

Master is certain that Navalny leads a risky life. “He has many enemies in Russia, including among the oligarchs there. And it would not be the first attack that was carried out on Navalny,” he explains. In 2017, the Kremlin critic had an eye operation after paint was poured on his face. Two years later, he was taken from a holding cell to the hospital, his face swollen and his skin badly red. Although doctors diagnosed an allergic reaction at the time, his medical officer spoke of poisoning.

“You live dangerously as a member of the opposition in Russia,” says Meister. Even so, he tends not to believe that he was directly the Kremlin that attacked Navalny. “Of course that would be possible, I don’t want to rule out the option. But I think such an attack would be problematic for the Kremlin on several levels,” he says. On the one hand, Navalny is a central political figure and is known far beyond Russia’s borders. “He is very visible and very influential,” said Meister, describing the Kremlin critic.

“Navalny can get people to take to the streets”

On the other hand, “silencing” the 44-year-old would fuel internal political conflicts. “Navalny has a lot of followers in social networks and he can get people to take to the streets. There is already a lot of dissatisfaction in Russia. If something happened to him, it could stir up even bigger demonstrations and protests,” explains the expert.

The fact is: in some Russian regions there will be elections in September. Navalny campaigned in Siberia for his so-called “smart vote” strategy aimed at electing any party – except the Kremlin United Russia. He wants to break their dominance in Russia. It will soon be seen whether he will succeed.

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