“The character you mentioned”, “a certain political force”, “whom you have named” — Vladimir Putin and his senior officials have executed various verbal somersaults to avoid speaking Alexei Navalny’s name over the past few years, in a bid to deprive him of publicity and legitimacy.
To that list we can now add “the Berlin patient”, the latest Kremlin-approved moniker for the Russian president’s most prominent rival, a he who must not be named bogeyman. Mr Putin’s squeamishness on this point is a quirk of Russian politics — an at times farcical attempt to pretend the activist, his campaigns against corruption and the protests he organises, which draw tens of thousands to the streets, do not exist.
The charade has now ceased to be amusing. Mr Navalny was poisoned with the Soviet-developed, military-grade nerve agent novichok last month while flying back to Moscow from Siberia. He was evacuated to a Berlin hospital two days later, and awoke from a coma on Monday. Western leaders, suspecting Moscow may have played a role in the poisoning, have rushed to his aid. Mr Navalny is “the victim of a crime intended to silence him”, said German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Still the Kremlin maintains its boycott. Asked whether Mr Navalny’s life-threatening situation meant it was time to start using his name, Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “He is a patient, and he is sick. That’s exactly what we call him. We still wish him a speedy recovery.” The poisoning, which is likely to leave the 44-year-old with long-term health problems, “doesn’t change the essence of the matter”.
Little wonder that Mr Navalny’s supporters do not expect the government to conduct a thorough investigation into his poisoning and punish those responsible. In fact, Russian officials insist that no traces of poison were found in Mr Navalny’s body during the two days he spent in a Siberian hospital before his airlift to Germany. Moscow has also sought to discredit the German conclusion that novichok — the same agent that was used in the attempted assassination of former double agent Sergei Skripal by Russian intelligence agents in the UK in 2018 — was to blame.
“It wasn't novichok. That’s for certain,” Alexander Sabayev, the chief toxicologist of the region where Mr Navalny was first hospitalised, said on Tuesday. “It wasn’t poisoning at all . . . that is some kind of fantasy.” Instead, potential ailments that could have caused the 19-day coma include stress, prolonged sun exposure or a skipped breakfast, according to Russian doctors.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s parliament and a close aide to Mr Putin, has even suggested German doctors may have poisoned Mr Navalny themselves in “a planned action against Russia in order to impose new sanctions . . . and try to restrain the development of our country”. The head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service said the same.
Seeking to discredit evidence provided by western governments and suggesting an anti-Russian conspiracy is an old tactic. The same rhetoric was used following the attack on Mr Skripal, when British intelligence services published evidence that two Russian operatives had travelled to the UK to carry out the attempted murder.
London maintained it had more evidence against the Russians but was withholding it to use in a potential future trial. Moscow countered that without seeing all the evidence, or being allowed to conduct a joint inquiry, it could not be sure the British conclusion was accurate.
A similar stand-off now is likely. “It’s time to show the cards, because it is obvious to everyone: Berlin is bluffing, catering to some vicious political fuss,” Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, said on Tuesday.
Some European countries have called for fresh sanctions against Russia to punish the use of a banned chemical weapon. Others believe Ms Merkel should withdraw German support for the controversial Russian gas pipeline currently under-construction, Nord Stream 2.
The Kremlin has waved away such threats as “absurd initiatives” but, as with Mr Navalny’s name, it may find that ignoring something does not make it go away.