Killing Zelenskyy, like Navalny, Is the Worst Thing Putin Can Do for Russia

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Boris Nemtsov, Pavel Antov, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Ravil Maganov, now Alexei Navalny—five men dead over the past ten years. Their crime? Simple: the transgression of the imperial delusions that plague Vladimir Putin, whose M.O.—suspicious circumstances in the deaths of his political opponents—is palpable from each of their deathbeds.

Nemtsov, Antov, and Maganov all opposed in some way the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nemtsov and Antov were more outspoken, with both denouncing the attacks and Antov even labelling a Russian missile attack on Kyiv—Ukraine’s capital—as an act of terrorism. Maganov, on the other hand, merely called for a “quick end” to the invasion. Nemtsov was shot on February 27, 2015—only a few days before he was meant to lead an anti-war protest. Antov died in a fall from the third floor of a hotel, though his number was doubled by Maganov, who fell six stories from a window at a Moscow hospital.

Prigozhin is a far different story, having initially been a strong ally and supporter of Putin. The founder of the state-funded private military company Wagner Group, he engaged its notoriously merciless troops—who were accused of torturing and killing civilians near Kyiv in April of 2022—in the war on Russia’s behalf. However, frustrated at the lack of supplies and poor treatment his soldiers were receiving, he led an armed rebellion against Moscow on June 24, 2023. Almost two months to the day later, on August 23, 2023, he died in the “crash” of his private jet.

Navalny is the most recent of Putin’s victims, dying on February 16, 2024, from what Russian prison officials claimed was, quote, “sudden-death syndrome.” 

A world-famous opposition leader, Navalny had previously made international headlines for narrowly escaping death in August of 2020. During a flight from Moscow to Tomsk, Russia, it was reported that Navalny became severely ill. After an emergency landing in Omsk, he was transported to Berlin, where laboratory technicians concluded that he had been poisoned with a nerve agent from the Novichok group. The result was confirmed by independent national labs in Sweden and Finland. The agent was determined to be similar to the one used by the Russian military intelligence service against Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the U.K.’s intelligence services during the 1990s and early 2000s. 

Following his return to Russia from Germany in 2021, Navalny was arrested and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for parole violations. A year later, in 2022, he was sentenced to nine years in a maximum security prison on charges (considered to be politically motivated) of fraud and contempt.

Many asked Navalny why he had made the decision to return despite the risks. In a Facebook post from January 17—meant to mark the third anniversary of his arrest—he stated, “I have my country and my beliefs. And I don’t want to give up either my country or my beliefs. And I cannot betray either the first or the second. If your beliefs are worth something, you must be willing to stand up for them. And if necessary, make some sacrifices.”

Others believed his motives were more complex. An activist who “thrived on agitation,” he “feared sinking into irrelevancy in exile,” writes Neil MacFarquhar for the New York Times. Kirill Rogov, a former Russian government adviser who now leads Re: Russia, a Vienna-based think tank, stated that “the fearlessness that he thought could bring him enormous political power” is what drew Navalny back. Some Russians allegedly even drew comparisons between Navalny and the classical, tragic heroes of ancient Greece: “The hero, knowing that he is doomed, returns home anyway because, well, if he didn’t, he would not be the hero.”

Given the lengthy trail of dead political opponents that paves the way to Putin’s seat in the Kremlin, Navalny must certainly have known that he was doomed. But perhaps he did not know just how doomed he was.

Regarding his death, prison officials from the Siberian complex in which Navalny was being held claimed that he “felt ill” after a walk, collapsed, and could not be revived. “Natural causes” was the official ruling, but Navalny’s supporters, critics of the Kremlin, and observers were unanimous in claiming that he had been murdered.

“They killed him. Even if not on that very day, several years of torture is also a way of killing,” said Sergei Biziukin, a fugitive opposition activist from the western city of Ryazan.

The crowd who attended the funeral turned the event into one of the largest recent displays of dissent in Russia, chanting his name, slogans for him and against Vladimir Putin, as well as against the war in Ukraine.

Navalny’s denouncement came despite a questionable past regarding Russo-Ukrainian relations and support for Ukrainian independence, which had led several Ukrainians to label him as a Russian imperialist.

It’s easy to say that Navalny was the last man standing out of Putin’s major domestic political opponents, as argues Luke Harding from NPR. With the rest dead, in exile, or in maximum-security prisons (in which prisoners are so far removed from the outside world that they might as well be dead), the focus on opposition to the Kremlin—in Putin’s eyes, the person(s) who poses the largest threat to his iron grip on Russia—turns to the man who has become a living symbol of the resistance to Russian imperialism itself: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

It’s not surprising that there have already been several attempts on Zelenskyy’s life since the start of the war, with the most recent (as of the time this article was written) being foiled on May 5, 2024. 

Jamie Dettmer of Politico argues that “Zelenskyy’s status as a symbol of what the West sees as a righteous fight, his ability to beg and berate his allies until he gets his way, [and] his willingness to brazen his way to frontline photo ops and parliamentary appearances” have “painted him with a bullseye.”

While the exact number of assassination plots and attempts against Ukraine’s president is impossible to tally, the total is undeniably high. Speaking to British tabloid The Sun in November of 2023 (a little over a year and a half since Russia launched its full-scale invasion), Zelenskyy admitted he had “lost count of [Russian] assassination attempts he’s survived,” and compared them to experiencing several bouts of COVID-19

“The first [assassination plot] is very interesting, when it is the first time, and after that it is just like COVID. First of all people don’t know what to do with it and it’s looking very scary. And then after that, it is just intelligence sharing with you detail that one more group came to Ukraine to [attempt] this.”

He added that five or six of Russia’s assassination attempts had been foiled by Ukraine’s intelligence services. Yet the question still remains: what happens if one of Russia’s attempts are successful?

In terms of succession, Ukraine’s constitution outlines a clear plan: the chairman of the Verkhovna Rada—currently Ruslan Stefanchuk, a member of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party—would inherit the presidency. Stefanchuk, however, has not forged the same relationship with Ukrainians that Zelenskyy has. With a trust rating of approximately 40% in polls—less than half of Zelenskyy’s—it is probable that Stefanchuk would struggle to fill Zelenskyy’s shoes, at least in terms of rallying the Ukrainian people.

However, Adrian Karatnycky, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, says that this would not matter. Citing his belief that there is strong leadership in Ukraine, Karatnycky predicts that a post-Zelenskyy government would be a collective government. He also noted that Ukraine has created “a well-honed” administrative, military and diplomatic machine, one that would certainly survive the death of the president. 

That being said, killing Zelenskyy is one of the worst things Russia could do for its war effort. As Karatnycky pointed out, the ability of the Ukrainian government to function is not in any way dependent on whether or not Zelenskyy is alive. Rather, his main function is to be a mouthpiece for the Ukrainian people, a symbol to rally behind, a vehicle through which hope for a free Ukraine is channeled. And that means that killing the Ukrainian president—more appropriately, forging a martyr—would only make those aspects more powerful.

Of course, in the short term, Russia may achieve its goal—at least partially. The death of Zelenskyy may result in the ushering in of a new leader who is not as charismatic and not as skilled as drawing in aid from foreign allies. Perhaps the west would be more inclined to push Ukraine into negotiations, where it is likely that territory Zelenskyy’s government has been so intent on fighting to keep—Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson—will be formally ceded to Russia.

But it is also likely that such concessions will not appease the Kremlin, a reality that many proponents of a Russian-Ukrainian compromise fail to understand. Russia, historically, has seen all of Ukraine as a Russian land. Not just Crimea, not just Donbas—and that means it will not be appeased until all of Ukraine is under Russian rule. If Ukraine enters concessions, whether or not Russia will launch another attempt to subjugate central and western Ukraine is not a matter of if, only a matter of when—and such an invasion may happen sooner than the west expects.

It is also true that, historically, Ukrainians are not content with being oppressed under Russian rule. And so while it is likely that in a post-Zelenskyy world, Russia would move (and may even succeed) to annex all of Ukraine, it is just as probable that, in time, Ukrainians would rise up once again to overthrow their subjugators. 

Such a scenario is where Zelenskyy as a martyr comes into play. Already a force to be reckoned with while alive, killing Zelenskyy would only amplify his messages (similar to how the deaths of leading figures such as Inez Milholland and Martin Luther King Jr. amplified their movements). The Ukrainian people have already proven the unbreakability of their iron will. With said will, generations of instilled anger, and a modern figure—one still fresh enough that many will remember his impact—to fight in the name of, such an uprising has the potential to be Russia’s worst nightmare. So, while the Kremlin (specifically Putin) may find political assassination to be the most valuable tool at his disposable for the time being, he—and Russia—may find in time that the consequences will come back to bite them, and perhaps in a far more poisonous way than they expect.