By Stephen Gowans
September 25, 2020
The question of whether the Russian president ordered the killing of a marginal Russian politician is unclear; at the moment, there’s no evidence he did, only an accusation by the United States. And since Washington has a clear political motive to blacken the reputation of the president of a country it deems a peer competitor, its accusation, unencumbered by evidence, can be readily dismissed. What’s not so readily dismissed, however, is the reality that the US government and major Western news media are using the events surrounding the alleged poisoning to call for the cancellation of a pipeline that would transport Russian natural gas directly to Germany. The cancellation would simultaneously hurt Russia and benefit the United States. Washington proposes to sell liquefied natural gas to Germany, at a higher cost to Germany than the Germans would pay to import natural gas from Russia. The cancellation of the pipeline and its replacement by US LNG shipments, would bind Germany more strongly to the United States, by making the country more dependent on the United States for its energy needs, and less dependent on Russia, while creating a handsome profit-making opportunity for US energy and shipping firms. Putin had a very weak motive to eliminate Navalny. The latter is a marginal opponent, but the United States has a strong motive to create a pretext to call for the cancellation of the pipeline; the cancellation would open the door to US LNG sales to Germany. That motive may have impelled Washington to use the Navalny incident to opportunistically accuse Putin of an attempted assassination and to call for the cancellation of the pipeline in retaliation, or worse, may have involved the United States in faking an assassination attempt, relying on the complicity of Navalny, who has in the past received US government funding.
I can’t know whether Alexei Navalny, a low-profile Russian politician, was the target of a Putin-ordered assassination attempt, but I do know that the account offered by Western governments and news media, alleging that the Russian president or his underlings ordered Navalny eliminated, is far from convincing. Indeed, the narrative is nonsensical, and requires the suspension of critical judgment to be believed. To this point, it is nothing more than an accusation without evidence.
The fact of the matter is that the events surrounding the collapse of Navalny on an airplane and his subsequent hospitalization in Germany are murky. There are many questions about the Navalny affair that remain unanswered, observed The New York Times in a September 22 editorial. “And this will likely remain so. Chief among them is whether President Vladimir Putin ordered or approved the attempted assassination.” 
Basis for the accusation
On what basis does The New York Times raise the question of whether Putin tried to murder Navalny?
To begin, we’re told that it “is now an established fact, confirmed by laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden, that Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union.”  Embedded in this observation is an insinuation, namely, that if Novichok was developed by the Soviet state, then only the agents of its successor state, Russia, could have used it. This was the argument used by the British government to explain a previous alleged Novichok poisoning—that of Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence agent who spied for the British, was caught and jailed in Russia, and later released in a prisoner exchange. Since no one else had the means and motive to do this, argued London, the Russian state must have been involved.
It needn’t be pointed out that it doesn’t follow as a logical necessity that because the nerve agent was developed in Russia that it remains exclusively in Russian hands. For “a number of years specialists from Western states and relevant NATO centres have been developing chemical substances related to the ‘Novichok’ group,” contends The Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the European Union. The Mission claims the United States “has issued more than 150 patents for combat use of the mentioned chemical substances.” 
The claim, of course, may or may not be true; I’m in no position to verify it. But arguing that because Novichok was made by Soviet scientists that only Russian agents could have used it, is akin to attributing the death of anyone who has ever been killed by an AK-47 to Moscow, since the machine gun was developed by a Soviet engineer. It also converges on blaming the Swedish government for every hit and run death involving a Volvo.
Considering that Putin was accused in the West of ordering Skripal’s assassination, it would seem highly unlikely that Novichok would, at this point, be the murder weapon of choice for Russian assassins. “The perpetrators knew that Novichok had been identified in the attack against Mr. Skripal,” observed the Times, “and that its use was a violation of international law.”  This, the editorial board offered as evidence of Putin’s culpability. But far from inculpating the Russian president, the Times’ observation seems, on the contrary, to point to a different explanation: That whoever poisoned Navalny (if indeed he was poisoned) did so with the intention of framing Moscow. Novichok, as a consequence of the Skripal case, and the ‘Made in the USSR’ label stamped on it by Western officials and news media, has turned the nerve agent into a Russian calling card. Only the most incompetent assassin would leave a calling card behind as an identifier. Indeed, if we’re to believe the conspiracy theory favored by Western governments and news media, we must believe that Russian intelligence is so incompetent that it’s (i) incapable of successfully carrying out assassinations (both Navalny and Skripal survived their putative poisonings), and that (ii) it has a self-defeating penchant for littering crime scenes with signs the West can use to point an accusatory finger at Moscow.
What’s more, how credible is a narrative that relies on a nerve agent as a murder weapon? A bullet to the head, a garrote around the neck, a stiletto to the heart, or maybe even a plastic bag over the head, followed by dismemberment by a bone-saw, much favored by Mohamed bin Salman’s henchman, are surely simpler and more effective ways of eliminating a political foe. Death by Novichok has a Hollywood feel about, more James Bond than reality.
Significantly, MBS, the day-to-day ruler of the Saudi feudal tyranny, can order the carving up of a critic, Jamal Khashoggi, and still The New York Times editorial board eschews any reference to the Saudi government as a regime, in contrast to the fondness it has for tarring with the R word any state that refuses to genuflect to US global primacy, Russia included. Neither do the same Western officials and news media demand accountability of MBS, a US client, as they do Putin, the head of a government which does not bow to the international dictatorship of the United States.
That Navalny survived his poisoning, as did Skripal, despite the lethality of the nerve agent—surely low probability events—invites another question: How likely is it that an assassin’s target would survive poisoning by a deadly toxin? Is it not reasonable to ask: Were Navalny and Skripal really poisoned by Novichok? If so, has the nerve agent’s deadliness been accurately described?
Navalny: US hero, Russian nobody
Western officials and news media present Navalny as a major political figure in Russia, but in seven polls conducted from April 2014 to December 2019 by The Levada Center, a Russian polling organization, Navalny’s support never exceeded 2 percent of Russian voters.  According to Fred Weir, the veteran Russia correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, “Navalny, who is part of the extra parliamentary opposition, he’s kind of like, say, the Communist Party would be in the United States. Or something like that. He’s definitely on the margins.”  Which invites the question: Why would the Russian president seek to assassinate a figure who’s definitely on the margins? Doing so would only raise Navalny’s meager profile, and provide ammunition to Western governments and news media to further their war on Russia. “Navalny,” concludes Weir, “is little more than a nuisance, and I can’t believe that Putin would rocket him to the top of the world political agenda through a botched attempt to assassinate him or even an effective one.”  This would be self-defeating. The preferred Western narrative demands that we suspend critical judgment to believe that Russian assassins are the world’s most incompetent, incapable of successfully carrying out their missions, and that Putin is an inept practitioner of the political arts.
Nord Stream 2
As Navalny rockets to the top of the world political agenda, his name is invoked increasingly in connection with Nord Stream 2, a pipeline to carry natural gas from Russia directly to Germany, by-passing such US clients as Ukraine. The pipeline, nearing completion, will join Nord Stream 1 as a second direct Russia-to-Germany route. US president Donald Trump has criticized Berlin, opining that the pipeline should never have been allowed to have been built, and has vowed to impose sanctions to stop it. Germany’s purchase of Russian natural gas, Trump charges, will make the US satellite “captive to Russia” and enrich Moscow.  The reality, of course, is that the pipeline will make Germany less captive to the United States. Furthermore, Nord Stream 2 will allow Germany to reduce its imports of Persian Gulf oil, eroding US oil company profits. Successive US administrations, reported The Wall Street Journal, “have pushed Europe, and Germany in particular, to create the infrastructure required to receive shipments of liquefied natural gas from the U.S.—a potential source of large revenues” for US big business, as an alternative to buying from Russia. But liquefied natural gas “from the U.S. needs to be shipped over the Atlantic and would be considerably more expensive than Russian gas delivered via pipelines. A senior EU official working on energy regulation said Russian gas would be at least 20 percent cheaper.” All the same, Washington wants Europe to “agree to some sort of racket and pay extortionate prices,” as one EU official put it.  In order to maintain Germany’s energy dependency on the United States, Trump has ordered the Germans to stop Nord Stream 2, and a plan is being bruited about in Washington to sanction companies involved in the pipeline’s construction.
As Canadian journalist Eric Reguly explains:
“U.S. President Donald Trump has condemned the project, and several senior Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, have called for sanctions against the German port that is helping to build the pipeline. The Novichok poisoning in August of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has heightened calls outside and inside Germany to kill Nord Stream.” 
Navalny may very well be an instrument of a racket developed by Washington to coerce Germany into paying extortionate rates to US energy firms. The New York Times editorial board has added its voice to the growing chorus of calls for “the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,”  and for the silent but implied call for the purchase by Germany of US liquefied natural gas. How convenient that there’s a surplus of US natural gas ready to be transported across the Atlantic if and when the pipeline is cancelled in retaliation for Putin’s alleged assassination of a political opponent.
In contrast, the Times has not called for an end to US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and US senators haven’t demanded that the United States impose sanctions on the Saudi kingdom, even after US intelligence concluded that MBS ordered the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi; indeed, even after the kingdom’s de facto ruler ordered the assassination of not a single man but a whole nation when he initiated an unprovoked war on Yemen. To be sure, the complication here is that the war on Yemen is led from behind by Washington  and arms sales to the Saudis are highly lucrative and a source of Brobdingnagian profits for the US arms industry. By comparison, Russian natural gas sales to Germany deny US investors a profit-making opportunity, while at the same time increasing German dependence on Russia while concurrently reducing it on the United States. What’s more, while there is credible evidence MBS ordered the Khashoggi dismemberment, there is no evidence that the attempted assassination of Navalny was ordered by Putin.
The US-Navalny nexus
It should be pointed out that while Navalny is a marginal figure in Russia, he is a figure to which the US government is willing to give money. As evidenced by the contradictory way he his portrayed by Western news media and his derisory status in Russia, Navalny’s significance is many times greater in the West than it is in his home country. He is Washington’s man.
The National Endowment for Democracy, a discreditable organization created by the US government to overtly undertake civil interventions abroad that the CIA once undertook covertly, has provided Navalny with financial assistance, according to The New York Times. This was reported under the headline, “Russia isn’t the only one meddling in elections. We do it too.”  In an August 2007 article titled “US: overt and covert destabilization,” Le Monde Diplomatique reported that the NED “was created in 1983, ostensibly as a non-profit-making organisation to promote human rights and democracy. In 1991 its first president, the historian Allen Weinstein, confessed to The Washington Post: ‘A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA’.”  In other words, the NED overtly works to destabilize governments Washington doesn’t like, namely, those that in the interests of democracy refuse to submit to rule from Washington. That US meddling in other peoples’ affairs is carried out under the bold guise of promoting democracy and human rights reveals the boundless hypocrisy of the US government. Navalny is an instrument of this apparatus, a tool for Washington to try to destabilize a country it regards as a peer competitor, and to use in the project of upending a pipeline project that favors Russia at US investors’ expense.
Assassins R US
The spectacle of US officials and news media expressing moral repugnance at the assassination of political opponents is, frankly, vomit-inducing. The US government runs the world’s largest assassination program. The Pentagon and CIA, working together, regularly assassinate by means of drone strikes anyone who takes up arms against the United States’ political, military, and economic domination of their homeland—a domination which challenges the concepts of democracy, self-determination, and human rights. One particularly gruesome weapon used by US assassins is named appropriately, the Ninja; it’s a “modified Hellfire missile” which carries “six long blades tucked inside, which deploy seconds before impact to slice up” its prey,  recalling the bone-saw used to slice up Jamal Khashoggi.
The Russian president “had the greatest motive, means and opportunity” to attempt an assassination of Navalny, reasons the New York Times editorial board, pointing to Putin as the perpetrator of a botched assassination, and demanding that he be held to account (by, inter alia, cancelling Nord Stream 2, thus preparing the way for US energy and shipping companies to step into the breach and profit handsomely.) The reasoning is flawed. While the Russian leader may have had the motive, means, and opportunity, others also had the motive, means, and opportunity, and perhaps to a greater degree. It doesn’t make sense for Putin to have targeted an inconsequential opponent unless he is a fool; indeed, such an act would be self-defeating, and no one questions the nous of the Russian president. Moreover, it makes no sense that if Navalny were truly the object of an assassination attempt that Russian operatives would use Novichok, since Western officials and news media had already run a campaign, in connection with Sergei Skripal, to indelibly stamp “Made in Russia” on the toxin. As mentioned above, using Novichok would be akin to leaving a calling card, an act more befitting agents trying to frame Russia than Russian agents trying to evade detection. At the same time, the US government, which decries Russia as a peer competitor and has entered into a low-level war against it, has its own motive. It is forever on the look out for opportunities to demonize the Russian president, in order to justify new actions to weaken Russia, including calling for the cancellation of Nord Stream 2, an event that should it transpire will create an important profit-making opportunity for US businesses. The events surrounding the Navalny incident offer a pretext for actions by the United States against Russia and on behalf of US investors. The possibility that the affair is a politically motivated operation run by Washington in aid of US corporate interests (both directly in securing a market for US LNG exports and indirectly in keeping one economic competitor, Germany, under the US thumb, and another, Russia, deprived of natural gas revenues) cannot be easily dismissed.
1. The Editorial Board, “Vladimir Putin Thinks He Can Get Away With Anything,” The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2020.
3. Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the European Union Comments on the situation with Alexey Navalny, Sep 15, 2020, https://russiaeu.ru/en/novosti/permanent-mission-russian-federation-european-union-comments-situation-alexey-navalny .
6. Aaron Maté, “In Navalny poisoning, rush to judgment threatens new Russia-NATO crisis,” The Grayzone, September 6, 2020.
8. Emre Peker, “Trump slams Germany over gas imports from Germany,” The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2018.
9. Bojan Pancevski, “Trump Presses Germany to Drop Russian Pipeline for Trade Deal,” The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2018.
10. Eric Reguly, “A dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean has brought Turkey and Greece close to war once again. But this time it’s different,” The Globe and Mail, September 11, 2020.
11. The Editorial Board.
12. Stephen Gowans, “The US-Led War on Yemen,” what’s left, November 6, 2017, https://gowans.blog/2017/11/06/the-us-led-war-on-yemen/
13. Scott Shane, “Russia isn’t the only one meddling in elections. We do it too.” The New York Times, February 17, 2018.
14. Hernando Calvo Ospina, “US: overt and covert destabilization,” Le Monde Diplomatique, August, 2007, https://mondediplo.com/2007/08/04ned .
15. Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Commandos Use Secretive Missiles to Kill Qaeda Leaders in Syria,” The New York Times, September 24, 2020.