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The death of Kremlin opposition leader Navalny

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

We begin tonight's program with a closer look at the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He died Friday in a remote Russian penal colony. There's still a lot we don't know about the circumstances of his death, but many people, including President Biden, suspect Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible.

Putin is infamous for crushing dissent. Journalist Luke Harding knows this well. He's a correspondent for The Guardian who's covered Russia for years and says that Navalny was unique among Russian dissidents.

LUKE HARDING: He was actually a kind of Western-style guy who understood technology. He understood how to tweet. And he made extraordinary kind of videos exposing corruption at the top of the Kremlin, clicked by millions of people. He could connect with people in a way that no other modern Russian politician could.

DOMONOSKE: So what might Navalny's death tell us about Russian politics? Luke Harding spoke with co-host Mary Louise Kelly, and they began by talking about the significance of Navalny's death.

HARDING: I mean, I think the big picture is that these methods, KGB methods, communist methods of assassination and silencing critics, enemies of Kremlin power have come back big time. An awful lot of Vladimir Putin's critics have died, both inside Russia and abroad. I wrote a book called "A Very Expensive Poison" about Alexander Litvinenko, who was an officer in the FSB, the spy agency that Putin used to run before he became prime minister and president. And yeah, he was killed with radioactive tea. There was another case...

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Just to pause because people may not remember the full details, that was back in 2006, in London. And yes, he...

HARDING: Yeah. And then more recently, we've seen Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector, also poisoned - he survived - by two assassins sent to a sleepy cathedral town called Salisbury. So...

KELLY: Also in England. Sure.

HARDING: Also in England. There's nothing surprising about Navalny's death. I think we can say pretty emphatically it was murder. That's certainly what his friends believe, his allies believe, what Western governments are saying. And what we know from previous cases and, actually, from a public inquiry in the U.K. into the death of Litvinenko, is that Western governments, the American governments believe that Putin personally authorizes these operations. In other words, you can't kill people on a freelance basis if they're critics of the czar, of the president. You need an order from the top. So I think responsibility for Navalny's death sits with Putin.

KELLY: I'll do journalistic due diligence and just note there is so much we don't know about the circumstances here, so much we may never know. It is possible that he fell over while taking a walk, which is the version the Kremlin is putting out there. It must be stated that he would not have been walking around a remote penal colony had he not been detained, imprisoned and held in isolation for so long. I mean, what fits or does not with the Kremlin playbook based on, for example, some of the cases you've just laid out?

HARDING: Well, I mean, what fits is the fact that there's going to be no proper investigation. I mean, what's happened in Russia since I was there more than a decade ago is that it's gone from being an authoritarian state to a totalitarian state where all the centers are crime, where Putin has unleashed this murderous war two years ago, full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and where human life counts for very little. So the full facts - yeah, in the American sense or the British sense of the word, I don't think we're going to get until the regime collapses, if it does collapse, or ever.

But what we can draw are conclusions from previous episodes and from the fact that that I think you can say with confidence, pretty much all of Vladimir Putin's opponents, domestic political opponents are either in exile or that they're dead, and that's the way that Putin likes it. And the other thing to note is that there's an election coming up now. Now, whenever you talk about elections in Russia, you have to do kind of air quotes. It's elections in inverted commas. But Putin is standing for president next month. The people around him are deeply paranoid and conspiratorial, and they hated Navalny. They regarded him as a threat and an irritant. And now he's gone. As Stalin said, no man, no problem.

KELLY: I mean, and I guess we'll throw in that Navalny himself has been poisoned and targeted before, the whole Novichok incident.

HARDING: Yeah. And - exactly. I mean, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see who might be responsible. Back in 2020, Navalny was campaigning in southern Russia for elections, urging voters to vote for any party but the ruling party of Vladimir Putin, the United Russia party, and we know that he collapsed on an aeroplane. He was poisoned with Novichok, which is this horrendously toxic nerve agent. Doctors revived him after the plane made an emergency landing, and he recuperated in Berlin.

And even more extraordinarily, he then managed to call up one of his poisoners, who turned out to be working for the FSB, the spy agency which had been shadowing Navalny for years, for about three years, following him to public engagements and meetings. And in an element which seems almost farcical were it not so serious, it seems - it turns out that they poisoned his underpants. So he survived that, and yet he decided to go back to Russia.

KELLY: If this was murder that resulted in Navalny's death, why now? Because Navalny, as you note, has been speaking out against the Kremlin, against Vladimir Putin personally for years.

HARDING: Well, I mean, I think there are two compelling reasons to the question, why now? One is upcoming presidential elections in Russia, which Putin is bound to win. But by sweeping away Navalny, that they - that that means the Kremlin can avoid any embarrassing scenes, any public protests which might mar the vote. But I think the other extraordinary factor is international, and particularly what's happening in the United States. I think Putin feels he's got the wind in his sails. On the battlefield in Ukraine, his troops are slowly going forward. They've regained the initiative. They're taking territory bit by bit.

And in Washington, we have the spectacle of Donald Trump saying that he's not going to defend the U.S.'s NATO allies if he becomes president again. And we have Republicans in Congress holding up blocking billions of dollars of vital aid to Ukraine. So I think Putin, he's KGB. He has a gift for scenting out weakness in his adversaries. I think he thinks that America is weak and divided, that the Europeans will suck this up, there'll be words of condemnation, statements protesting Navalny's death or murder, but that ultimately he will prevail. And then the sort of great battle, as he sees it, for the 21st century, for the world order - that Russia is winning.

KELLY: Wow. Is your assessment that, based on his decision to go back to Russia, even after he had been poisoned, he understood that there was a target on his back?

HARDING: I mean, I think he did. He knew perfectly well what Putin was capable of. He knew that by mocking Putin, by calling him, for example, a thieving little man in a bunker and grandpa - he knew that he was courting sort of terrible retribution from the regime and its servants, and yet he did it anyway. And he had a mission. He had a calling. And a lot of his friends, when he was recuperating in Germany in 2020, said, look, Alexei, don't go back. Don't go back. They'll kill you.

He did it anyway. I think he thought that in exile, if he'd ended up in D.C. or at a kind of think tank, U.S. think tank, he would have become irrelevant. And as it was, he wanted to be with his people. I mean, he was actually a patriot, I would say, in the best sense of the word, in that he believed in Russia, but he believed in a sort of plural Russia, a more tolerant and humane Russia. And unfortunately, the Russia that he envisaged, that he fought for, is still a very, very long way away.

KELLY: Luke Harding is senior international correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. Among his many books about Russia is one titled "Mafia State." Luke Harding, thank you.

HARDING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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