The picture changed when Navalny’s supporters wrested him from the Omsk hospital and flew him to Germany. The Germans brought their Defence Ministry scientists into the case. They quickly diagnosed Novichok poisoning. The same method used to poison the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain in 2018.
But even when the Germans made their pronouncement, Putin kept up the façade of respectability. He didn’t deny reports that agents of his Federal Security Bureau, or FSB, successor agency to the KGB, had been following Navalny for three years. But the FSB wasn’t responsible for the poisoning, he said. “If they wanted to, they would have finished the job.”
There is one thing that Putin hates even more than being exposed. It’s being exposed as weak. In December, Navalny, now fully recovered from the assassination attempt, hoodwinked an FSB agent into an extensive telephone conversation where the agent detailed part of the operation to kill Navalny. The 49-minute call was witnessed by journalists at Navalny’s end in Germany and recorded. It will go down as one of the great moments in espionage, more Johnny English than John Le Carre.
Thinking that he was talking to a superior officer, the FSB agent answered dozens of Navalny’s questions. Including this one, in which the opposition leader asks the FSB agent where the Novichok had been applied: “And on which piece of cloth was your focus on? Which garment had the highest risk factor?
Answer: The underpants.
Navalny wanted specifics: Do you mean from the inner side or from the outer? I have an entire questionnaire about this, which I am about to discuss with Makshakov [leader of the FSB hit team], but will require your knowledge as well.
Answered the agent, Konstantin Kudryavtsev: Well, we were processing the inner side. This is what we were doing.
N: Well, imagine some underpants in front of you, which part did you process?
K: The inner, where the groin is.
N: The groin?
N: Well, the crotch, as they call it. There is some sort of seams there, by the seams.
It goes from ridiculous to absurd when Navalny, the target of the assassination, chides his would-be assassin for bungling his own killing. Was it a mistake to use this method with the Novichok, he asks Kudryavtsev?
K: This is what my superiors have decided, therefore, it is probably correct. The method is a good one.
N: Well, he remains alive, therefore, it is not that good.
Putin’s fearsome security apparatus was exposed as ineffective, and, worse, ridiculous.
We already knew that Putin was afraid of Navalny – he barred him from standing for election in 2018. The assassination attempt revealed that Putin remained afraid of him.
And then Navalny committed the worst possible offence to Putin’s ego. He declared that he would return to Russia. He was unafraid. He flew home on Monday.
Putin’s fear and frustration burst into open view. Navalny fully expected that Putin would have him arrested the moment he landed. The surprise twist was that Putin closed an airport and diverted Navalny’s flight to another, just to deny him any chance of being seen to be returning to a hero’s welcome.
In the brief moments before police grabbed him, Navalny spoke the words Putin fears most. “I am not afraid,” the opposition campaigner told reporters as he stood in front of a picture of the Kremlin.
Putin is not the only authoritarian leader to drop the pretence of any sort of restraint. China’s Xi Jinping broke Beijing’s solemn undertaking to the people of Hong Kong and to the world by unilaterally imposing a so-called national security law last year.
It is a crude assertion of raw political power over any rules. China under paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had promised that Hong Kong could retain its limited liberties until 2049 in an agreement enshrined in a statement to the UN. Xi has torn this up as a mere piece of paper.
And now the supposed beacon on the hill of world democracy, the US, has revealed its own authoritarian potential. Donald Trump had openly admired Xi Jinping’s declaration of himself as leader for life – maybe we ought to try that in America, he said at the time. And now he has.
Trump isn’t going to get away with it. Not this time, at least. But most Republican legislators in the US Congress remain committed to defending him in his brazen claim to rule as a dictator. And 71 per cent of Americans in a new CBS News poll say they fear that US democracy and the rule of law is at risk. America’s future as a liberal democracy can no longer be assumed.
The advance of authoritarianism in these three great powers is part of a broader trend. We are entering the 15th year of democratic recession in the world, where the number of countries operating under a democratic system continues to shrink. There is no nice way to say it. The survival of human liberty is at stake.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
Peter Hartcher is political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.