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Opinion | Why Would Russia Poison Aleksei Navalny Now?

Today, breathless updates on Mr. Navalny’s health dominate the headlines in Russia and my social media feeds. If he dies, Mr. Putin will lose his leading opponent and the system will lose its balance. But peace and stability are no longer the values that the Kremlin holds above all else. In January, Mr. Putin introduced constitutional amendments that essentially change the structure of the state and allow him to be president for life. The Russian authorities often warn of the dangers of oppositionist extremism, but Russia’s chief extremist is Mr. Putin himself, with his willingness and ability to radically change the rules of the game.

We may not know what happened to Mr. Navalny, but we do know that immediately following his hospitalization, pro-Kremlin bloggers and media outlets began claiming that his sickness may have been caused by drinking bad home-brewed liquor. This is a lie: His doctors have refuted the presence of alcohol in his system and, as someone who has been friends with Mr. Navalny for many years, I can personally attest that he has never been much of a drinker.

The eagerness with which the pro-Kremlin press is denying it being an attack suggests the authorities are interested in concealing the true perpetrators. This can be read as a public confession that Mr. Navalny was indeed poisoned by people working for the government.

As in the case of Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who defected to Britain and was poisoned with a nerve agent in 2018, the authorities will now surely cover their tracks so noisily and clumsily that they will leave no doubt of their involvement. There is really no version of the story that doesn’t involve the Kremlin. After all, the Putin era of Russian politics has been governed by the laws of a secret service operation.

Mr. Navalny has truly held an important place in the political system for many years with his unique monopoly over the segment of the opposition that refuses to compromise with the Kremlin. But the new reality of Mr. Putin’s lifelong rule demands new conditions. A critic of the regime must now acknowledge that he is not risking a seat in Parliament or even his freedom — but his very life.

The problem is that the system in which you’re either for Mr. Putin or you die seems much more unstable than what came before it. Political terror precludes the possibility of political stability. The person least comfortable in a Navalny-free Russia is bound to be Mr. Putin himself.

Oleg Kashin (@kshn) is the author of “Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life Under Putin.” This essay was translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich.

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