In Navalny poisoning, rush to judgment threatens new Russia-NATO crisis

Veteran Russia correspondent Fred Weir on the Navalny poisoning and the Western media’s dysfunctional coverage of allegations against Moscow.

Claims that Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has been poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok are threatening a new standoff between Russia and NATO states, with calls for punitive measures against Moscow, including cancelling the Nordstream 2 German-Russia pipeline.

Navalny’s opposition activism is “marginal in Russian politics — it’s not currently a threat to the Kremlin,” says Fred Weir, a veteran Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. “Navalny is little more than a nuisance [to the Kremlin]. 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. It just does not make sense to me.”

Weir also discusses the flaws of Russia coverage in Western media, including the recent case where Russians were accused of staging a fake left-wing website to deceive U.S. audiences.

Guest: Fred Weir, veteran Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.


AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback, I’m Aaron Maté.

Joining me from Moscow is Fred Weir, veteran correspondent covering Russia for The Christian Science Monitor. Fred, welcome to Pushback.

FRED WEIR: Pleasure to be here.

AARON MATÉ: The poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the German government says that they found Novichok in his system. Now a lot of pressure on the Russian government to come up with an explanation, [and] to investigate. What are your thoughts on what we know so far?

FRED WEIR: Well, we don’t know very much. I mean, I think people should understand that Russia is a big, sprawling country. It’s got many, many intersecting elites which Putin has managed fairly effectively over the past 20 years, but he doesn’t control everything, And so, when you have a character like 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. But Russia, being the type of opaque and certainly rigid, centralized state that it is, the authorities consider him to be a threat. And he’s a fairly talented politician. He has got a lot of enemies, I mean, within the Russian elite, within Russia. What happened to him is scary and horrifying, but it’s kind of hard to see it having been ordered by Putin.

First of all, I’m pretty sure that Russian secret services—and I’m posing this as a question, not as a polemic—but Russian secret services, I think, I’m guessing, know how to kill efficiently and without creating a really loud, scandalous trail leading to themselves. And the use of anything by the name “Novichok” does plant a flag that says, “Russian secret services,” “Kremlin.”

And the fact is that we’ve had a string of poisonings over the past, you know, 15 years or so. Scary, mysterious and disturbing poisonings. But for the most part—and, again, I’m not making light of this or, you know, trying to minimize it—but for the most part the victims have survived. That again doesn’t suggest the ruthless agents of the Kremlin eliminating their political opponents. You had the case of Alexander Litvinenko in London, who was infamously poisoned with polonium, a radioactive agent, and he died. But since then you have Vladimir Kara-Murza, a veteran critic of the Kremlin who’s been poisoned twice and survived both—and returned to his former dissident activities. You have one of the founders of Pussy Riot, Pyotr Verzilov, who was apparently poisoned two years ago and medevacked out to Germany to the same hospital that Navalny is in now. He survived and has returned to Russia, and is still in his, you know, involved in all his activities. And now you have the case of the Skripals in Salisbury. And now you have this Navalny incident, and you just … I mean, it just raises a lot of questions.

They’re simple narratives, and everybody is jumping into line and saying, “See? The Kremlin. Novichok.” And it’s really hard to address that if you are, like, a correspondent in Russia and your job is to try to figure out exactly what’s happening in this complicated place where so much is opaque to you. It’s hard not to, you know, jump into your combat gear and get with the narrative. But, in a sense, Putin does own it. This is his country. He’s the president. And, in my opinion, he’s not doing enough to investigate these cases. But, on the other hand, it really doesn’t make sense or compute that he would be ordering these poisonings.

First of all, they’re, for the most part, unsuccessful, as I said. And secondly, they do him more harm personally. They are more of a danger and a humiliation to Putin, in, like, Navalny in his present state is really an embarrassment to Russia and to Putin. And much more so than Navalny walking around, getting with his regular daily activities as he was when this happened. So, it’s a mystery to me, and I really wish there were answers. And I’m sure that some of them could be provided by the Russian government and security services if they were more forthcoming.

AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you, Fred, the way that Navalny is described in US media as a Russian opposition leader, is that how he’s viewed inside of Russia? Because I’ve heard Russians say that he’s actually more of an anti- … and a very effective anti-corruption activist.

FRED WEIR: Well, he’s an anti-Kremlin activist. He is not a liberal or a Democrat. People seem to project that upon him, but he is nothing like that. But he is a very effective opposition politician.

His following in Russia is not that large, but it is enthusiastic and loyal, and his anti-corruption activities are one of the ways in which he does express his opposition very effectively. He does these Youtube videos; perhaps you’ve seen some in which he lampoons and lambastes the corruption of high officials. And it’s not that hard to do in Russia. We have a regime here where the oligarchy is intertwined within officialdom, and what Navalny can do quite effectively is show how supposed civil servants are living far beyond their declared means. And, of course, the Russian population hates that, and so it’s one of the ways he gets at Putin and at the Russian elite writ larger. They get shown up for the hypocrites and corrupt bastards that they are. And so, that’s one thing he does effectively.

Another thing he’s been doing is pushing this tactical voting thing, and I know that requires some explanation to Westerners who don’t think that any kind of voting takes place in Russia. But there is a systemic opposition. It includes things like the Communist Party, the Fair Russia Party, which is sort of social democratic, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party which is ultra-nationalist. But they are real parties, and they have real critiques of the Kremlin. They’re not looking to overthrow the system, but they are looking to get a bigger share of the pie politically.

And so the elections are sort of real to that extent, that those … that spectrum of parties takes place, and Navalny has been going around getting … encouraging people to vote against the United Russia Party, which is the pro-Kremlin party, by voting for anybody else who looks strong. A communist, a nationalist; anybody but United Russia. And that proved to be very effective in Moscow last year, last September. And he was doing that in Siberia. And so that may very well have felt like a threat to the United Russia Party, which is sort of like a trade union of officials and big businessmen. And he may have, you know, attracted enemies that way.

So, but it’s not … it’s marginal in Russian politics. It’s not currently a threat to the Kremlin. Navalny 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. It just does not make sense to me. But I haven’t got a coherent alternative explanation for it.

AARON MATÉ: You mentioned earlier how the reasons why this might actually hurt Putin. One of them now is you have the German opposition party … parties inside the German opposition who are calling on Angela Merkel to cancel this proposed Russia-German Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Can you talk about what an important project that is for Putin, and what this might mean if the poisoning of Navalny ends up canceling that project?

FRED WEIR: Yeah, well, you have … you know how the media and the elite in the United States are given to conspiracy theories, rather a lot lately? And in Russia the conspiracy theory du jour is that the Navalny poisoning was kind of staged by Western interests, precisely to promote the sabotaging of Nord Stream 2. Nord Stream 2 … and there’s this southern one, TurkStream, that goes to Southern Europe via Turkey, are the big effort by Gazprom, Russia’s giant natural gas monopoly, to circumvent Ukraine and Poland and countries that have been, from Russian establishment point of view, troublesome over the past couple of decades, and to deliver the gas directly. Nord Stream 2 is the second half of one that’s already been completed, Nord Stream 1, which has been delivering gas for about six or seven years now to Germany. Nord Stream 2 will double the volume. And so, it’s a huge thing. It’s almost finished. And it involves not just Russia’s Gazprom but several huge European mega corporations. They’re all involved, and they have a huge stake in it.

So, the United States, which doesn’t have much economic stake in relations with Russia at all, has been pushing sanctions not just against Russia and Gazprom but against Western companies, European companies that are involved with building Nord Stream 2. And they’ve, I think, I mean, it’s coming down to the wire. The pipeline is almost finished. Last fall the latest round of US Congress sanctions forced the European company that was building it—they had a special, you know, pipeline-laying ship—they had to withdraw that from the project. But the Russians have a replacement, which seems to be immune to sanctions, ready to go.

So, it is a tense … a really, really tense race to see whether the Russians can finish it or not. And so, the Russian conspiracy theory about Navalny, it makes that kind of superficial sense that many conspiracy theories do. It’s who would, if they ask, who would benefit from this? And obviously this real spike in tensions between Germany and Russia, and a lot of pressure now for Germany to cancel Nord Stream 2, would, you know, you can connect those thoughts. But that’s the level at which this discussion is taking place, that’s for sure.

AARON MATÉ: Well, it’s interesting to consider that in light of the dominant American conspiracy theory of the last four years, which is that Vladimir Putin controls Donald Trump. And that has meant, I think, in the US media, largely ignoring the case of the Nord Stream 2, where it’s Donald Trump and his administration that are leading the charge to cancel the Nord Stream 2, and are even trying to impose sanctions on Europe over it in a bid to undermine it. But that has been largely ignored, or one of the many stories largely ignored, because I think it undermines the dominant conspiracy theory that so many people in the media and political class here have latched onto.

And on this front, I want to ask you: you are a veteran correspondent in Russia. You come from the US or Canada? I don’t remember.

FRED WEIR: I’m Canadian.

AARON MATÉ: You’re Canadian. So, what is it like for you as a Westerner living inside of Russia, knowing it very well and looking at just for the last four years, the way Russia and Vladimir Putin have been discussed in the West as this evil genius who can install a president, get people to protest against each other in the streets, can basically, you know, do anything he wants, according to the narrative that we get?

FRED WEIR: Yeah, I should tell you that most Russians laugh their heads off when this idea is explained to them, that Putin is manipulating US politics. Because he, I mean, he’s popular in Russia in the sense that people see no alternative to him. And the past 20 years, it has to be said, have not been bad years in Russia, compared to the rest of Russian history; they’ve been rather good years, and people value stability. But they don’t particularly love Putin. And they certainly don’t worship him as a guy who can, you know, control stuff. He can’t. I mean, it’s visible that he can’t even fix who is going to be governor at Khabarovsk this summer. And so, that notion of the all-powerful Putin really does excite a lot of derision among Russians. And I don’t know, myself. I mean, I have no better idea what Russian secret services get up to than you know what the CIA is doing on any given day, or any average Russian or American knows that stuff.

But it is a staple of Soviet and Russian political culture that authorities always blame foreigners when things go wrong. They’re always in there, they still do it. Not to the extent that the Soviet officialdom did, but they always introduce the foreign hand and the secret foreign manipulations that are going on, and they always have their security chiefs standing behind them nodding solemnly, “Yes, yes, we know this is happening.” And it’s my experience that Russians are completely immune to that. They … it just rolls off their backs like water off a duck because they’ve just been exposed to so much of explanations about things whenever there are protests in the street, or Chernobyl happens, or anything like that. It’s always the foreign hand that is invoked. So, Russians tend to ignore that. Maybe you Americans have just been getting a big dose of it for the first time. Because I myself am amazed at how seriously so many Americans seem to take the idea that Putin can choose an American president by, you know, posting fake ads on Facebook. Like, it just … it seems, I mean, to me, absurd. And Russians just don’t get it at all.

But you know, I just … as a foreign journalist in Russia, this is what you’re asking me. So, I’m regarded as an American journalist because I work for The Christian Science Monitor. I traveled around Russia. I find people are extremely hospitable and friendly. They laugh at the idea. I can remember being on TV in Voronezh about a year ago when the State Duma, the parliament, was trying … was talking about debating … declaring all American journalists to be foreign agents, because the United States had just declared RT to be a foreign agent in, you know, in violation … forced to register under FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act]. And the moderator of the program I was on was just laughing his head off at this. He’s saying, “How does it feel to be a foreign agent?” and laughing.

So, it’s quite a different atmosphere for me. I just don’t have any of that trouble with ordinary Russians, and I don’t really have much, you know, contact with officialdom anyway. But I don’t get interfered with. And all I can say is that I would really hate to be a Russian journalist in the United States right now, with the atmosphere that one, you know, senses about people having contacts with Russians and the contamination that Russians bring. It reminds me of the Soviet Union. But here in Russia at least—and you can ask other journalists—but I feel totally comfortable here. I have not had problems in years. It’s been like 17 years since I was even detained by the security police for any reason. And even then, it was not a big deal. It’s a brief encounter. So, I’m just surprised at how things go and how much the United States seems to be adopting things that I regard as features of Soviet political culture.

AARON MATÉ: Well, I think propaganda aimed at domestic US audiences is a very long-standing thing. Aim to sow fear of other countries, blame them for our problems and justify increased militarism towards them, which I think is very much a dominant factor in the case of US propaganda against Russia. And it’s just amazing how successful it’s been, despite the fact that even if we accepted everything Russia is accused of here in the US as being correct, so it’s stealing some emails and putting out some silly memes on social media, that even if we accept that all that is true, that that is still presented to us as this seismic threat that is literally compared by US politicians to Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

FRED WEIR: Yeah, I think one of the things about that, if you take this latest, I guess, retread of this Russiagate thing, where Facebook has banned a supposedly Russian news site, and the reason I personally got involved in it because Facebook censored a post of mine about it, and I got quite upset about this.

AARON MATÉ: Just to explain this quickly, Fred. So, this is a website called PeaceData. And a firm called Graphika, which works closely with NATO-tied groups, NATO-funded groups, came out and said that this website, PeaceData, was posing as a progressive website, [but] really was run by people who are associated with the Internet Research Agency, which is this troll farm that was indicted for putting up some memes during the 2016 US presidential election.

FRED WEIR: Yes. And I had never heard of this PeaceData website before. Perhaps it’s a real thing, and perhaps Yevgeny Prigozhin, the guy who funded the Internet Research Agency, is doing that. But if you go to that website, which is what I was trying to encourage my Facebook friends to do, just go have a look at the content on it, and then try to describe what you think is the threat. Because it’s basically opinion and it was … and it’s basically mostly written by American journalists who are of a leftist orientation, and they’re commenting on … and it’s rather a wide spectrum of comment on American politics. Now, I really don’t know why Prigozhin or Russians would be doing that. But you’ve got RT, you’ve got Sputnik, you’ve got various Russian media outreach things. Propaganda, if you like. They do do that. There’s just no question about it. But what are we afraid of?

Just go and look at it. Go, you know, access RT. They have an American version; they have a British version. Look at their content, and please, somebody, get back to me and tell me what is it about it that scares you? I mean, I grew up in the Cold War. I grew up in Canada. But Canada in those days was a very self-confident society. You could step into a communist bookstore, buy a Soviet propaganda pamphlet, and nobody would say anything about that. It was perfectly obvi … I went to university. We had all kinds of different groups flogging their different pamphlets in the main lobby every day.

[Now,] you cannot have any kind of argument. It seems like all that’s closing down, and instead of having this open marketplace of ideas where we’re all perfectly confident that we’re okay and we can … the average citizen can make up their own mind, sort their way through different opinions, we’re frightened [now] that they might hear something from Russia. It’s really quite bizarre, and it is in some ways the opposite of the Cold War times when it was the Soviet authorities who were terrified of, you know, foreign broadcast organizations, foreign books getting in and reaching average Soviet citizens. But today, the main Russian state news agency, RIA Novosti, actually has a very popular website. It’s called inoSMI, which every day translates … does good full translations of media articles from the Western press and publishes them. It’s one of the most popular web news sites in Russia. So, I don’t know. There’s so many ironies, so many levels of irony, and I guess there is an information war going on. But it seems like the Russian government, for all of its deficiencies, trusts their own citizens more to, like, to view various kinds of content these days than US authorities do.

AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you finally about Navalny. There’s got to be some way for an independent testing here. Have there been any calls inside Russia for his lab test to go to some neutral scientific body? Because you had the hospital in Russia that tested him that did not find Novichok. And then he goes to Germany; there is Novichok there. Have there been any calls for, somehow, his samples to be taken to some kind of neutral body, for there to be a test done there?

FRED WEIR: I don’t know if there are any neutral bodies. But what I thought at the time of the Skripal affair in Britain was that a lot of answers might be, like, forced into the open. If the British had shared their data with the Russians, that there’d been some kind of, you know, dialogue that was at least semi-open, it simply would have forced the two sides to get off their closed narratives and, at least, just invent something new. It would have been good. And it would be good here, too, if you could get Russian doctors from Tomsk there to meet with their German counterparts and share their data in some form that would become semi-open.

Because otherwise what we’re getting—and we’ve seen it already several times, this is being recycled—but you get entrenched narratives. People believe a certain chain of events. It doesn’t matter how flimsy and fact-free that is. It is impossible to penetrate. And on one side, it’s Putin is the dictator who is murdering his opponents, he’s using the most advanced deadly nerve agents and his ruthless agents are killing people, and they’re just lying about it. And on the other side, and I know this about Russians, they increasingly think that Western media is lying. And, I mean, even liberal Russians who used to be pretty pro-Western, people look at things that are being written and shake their heads and think, no, that does not make sense to us. And increasingly Russians are getting their backs up and seeing it as anti-Russian propaganda; things are being made up in order to slander us. And there is no daylight between those two positions. You just can’t reconcile them, and without some kind of dialogue taking place, they’re just gonna get harder and harder and it’s gonna get worse and worse. But I see no hope on either side, frankly, that you could bridge these two narratives.

AARON MATÉ: Why do you see no hope?

FRED WEIR: Why? Well, I mean, you see how things are going, and I can say that the Russian side, which is the side I cover, is quite intransigent. They could do, like, for instance, they could announce an investigation into this Navalny affair. They could do much more, even. I mean, their position is unless the Germans provide us with proof of poisoning, then we don’t have any grounds to start a criminal investigation. And that, you know, you could say that that’s reasonable, but if they were to go an extra mile, like, try to reach out with information, maybe more about these family of chemicals in its history that are called Novichok, maybe if they were to make some more efforts with the Russian media to go and look at things, talk.

I don’t know, they could do more. But it would be on the basis of goodwill, on the basis of believing that if they did this, that Westerners would listen to them. And I don’t think that we’re at that place anymore. We were 15 years ago. There was an awful lot of goodwill in Russia toward the West, and 20 years ago polls showed that most Russians were actually very pro-American. And now the polls … those polls are upside down. Most Russians are very suspicious and hostile toward the United States, and it’s because of the way they have experienced these events in the past couple of decades. And I think the same is true in the West, that attitudes toward Russia have hardened. Nobody thinks that you should do anything based on goodwill toward Russia. In fact, they need to be punished harder. I think that’s a general view, certainly in the political classes. So, no, I can’t see hope.

AARON MATÉ: Well, it’s an ominous place to leave it, but we’ll have to leave it there for now. And I look forward to having you back on, Fred, to discuss.

FRED WEIR: Sure. Happy to do it.

AARON MATÉ: Fred Weir, Russia correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, speaking to us from Moscow. Thanks very much.