- Three NATO intelligence sources tell Insider they believe Russia's Putin will attempt to kill opposition leader Alexei Navalny again. Navalny is currently recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning in Berlin.
- Navalny may believe that Germany might threaten its gas pipeline deal with Russia in response to the attempted assassination, thus complicating Putin's ambition to murder him.
- But in the long run that's a mistake, these sources say. The West has a history of responding feebly to Russian security threats, and Putin is playing the long game.
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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the latest critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin to be mysteriously poisoned, has announced he plans to return to Russia after his recovery from exposure to a deadly nerve agent.
But Navalny, who is recovering in a Berlin hospital, will be taking an enormous personal risk, according to three officials from NATO intelligence services who focus on Russian intelligence operations.
All three are in agreement that Navalny might change his mind (or be convinced by Western intelligence services) that the risk of returning to a country where the president apparently wants to murder him is too high.
But they also concluded that for now, Navalny is under the impression that the failure to kill him in Siberia will make it more difficult for Putin to try again. Germany is furious over the incident, and the German government has leverage it can apply to Putin over the multi-billion-euro Nord Stream gas pipeline projects intended to link the two nation's economies.
The assassination attempt has hurt Russia's ability to borrow money — but that's it
"There's no other explanation than this was an assassination attempt ordered at the highest levels of the Russian government," said one counter-intelligence official from a Baltic nation. "There is some disagreement over whether it is possible that Putin did not directly order the attack but rather it was an initiative undertaken by his henchmen. But the presence of Novichok — which is made in a strictly controlled military lab — convinces me that Putin had to authorize it himself. There's a concern in some NATO circles [about] what it might mean if Russian officials decided to use a nerve agent on their most high profile dissident without Putin's formal approval, this is possible but in my opinion this is unlikely."
On Thursday, Navalny's legal team announced that a German lab had concluded the agent was administered in a free bottle of mineral water provided by his hotel.
The German government has officially issued strongly worded demands for information on the incident even as there is renewed debate on whether the Nord Stream project is appropriate in light of Putin's apparent history of murdering or attempting to murder his opponents.
Already, Russia has indicated that German talk of strong economic sanctions or even the cancelation of the Nord Stream project has hurt its ability to borrow money on international markets. But will this pressure be enough to keep Navalny alive if he returns to Russia after he recovers?
"Short-term maybe, but long term absolutely not," a Central European intelligence official who is frequently at odds with Russian intelligence services told Insider.
'Putin is ruthless and but never stupid'
"Putin is ruthless and but never stupid or rash. If Navalny returns to Russia he will face massive harassment and possibly arrest. This is how Putin ties up domestic opponents with a neverending stream of lawsuits, tax investigations, arrests on ludicrous charges. This will keep Navalny busy for years but eventually Putin is likely to decide that as Nord Stream becomes complete that the West, which he sees as greedy and weak, will probably not respond in a manner that really hurts him. The moment he makes that calculation — and of course he will never indicate he's made it, we will just know because Navalny is dead — then it will just be about finding a time or opportunity that suits him."
The Baltic official agrees that another attempt on Navalny would probably not come immediately. But if Putin concludes the poisoning attempt and harassment did not change Navalny's focus on the corruption of Putin's inner circle, then he would not consider the West's reaction as a major factor.
"What Putin has learned about the West in the last 20 years is, at least in his mind, the West's concerns about human rights and freedom take the back seat to powerful people making money from Russia," said the Baltic official. "The way he sees it, he openly sent assassins with radioactive poison to London to murder Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the UK did nothing serious in response. Then in 2018 he sends two more assassins to Salisbury to kill more defectors and instead nearly kill a policeman and does kill a British citizen. The response was some diplomatic back-and-forth but ultimately nothing serious."
"If he doesn't give a f--- about killing people on British soil because nobody will do anything to him, what on earth will stop him from killing one of his own in Russia?" concluded the official.
A military intelligence official based at NATO headquarters outside Brussels — who asked that their home country not be named — said that while the Germans are likely to push harder than the UK on their leverage against Putin, ultimately it's not hard to imagine that the West's feckless behaviour has convinced him that the EU cannot or will not take harsh measures.
Britain didn't even threaten to take Chelsea FC away from one of Putin's 'asset managers'
"I'm not sure if he will have Navalny killed right away or wait for the appropriate time," said the official. "But I am convinced that he doesn't see the West as being willing to stand up to him over some dissidents. The guy sent assassins to spray Novichok all over Salisbury, killed an English woman, and the Brits didn't even kick out the ambassador let alone take a dramatic step like taking Chelsea [Football Club] away from him."
Chelsea is technically owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. All three intelligence sources who spoke to Insider say that it's impossible that British officials sincerely think he is the true owner.
"Abramovich is one of Putin's asset managers," said the Baltic official. "The British can claim he owns Chelsea but the fact is if Putin calls up Abramovich and tells him to sell the club to someone else for a single ruble, the deal will be done in a day, no questions asked. They all know perfectly well that Putin's face might as well be on Chelsea's jerseys. And he knows perfectly well that if radioactive tea and Novichok spray killing people around the UK won't have consequences, killing Navalny will be no problem at all."