Fear and a pattern of political killing in Russia

  • Spring 2021
Fear and a pattern of political killing in Russia

Suzanne Freeman is a PhD student in Security Studies and Comparative Politics, focused on deterrence, civil-military relations, and grand strategy with Russia as a primary case study.

Below left image is of protesters marching along Moscow's Tverskaya Street, March 26, 2017 (Photo courtesy Evgeny Feldman, Wikimedia Commons)

SPRING/SUMMER 2021 : précis Student Feature : Suzanne Freeman
protesters marching along Moscow's Tverskaya Street, March 26, 2017 and head shot of Suzanne Freeman
September 15, 2021

One year ago, in August 2020, officers from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) allegedly attempted to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny using a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.1 But this was not the first time that Russia tried to assassinate an opponent of its regime. Indeed, the attempted murder of Navalny follows a pattern of action by the Russian state against its critics, including journalists, politicians, and defectors. The regime thus may be employing violence strategically to elicit fear in order to silence dissent. Although fear is typically associated with mass terror, the nature of fear-driven inference can make less violence fearfully impactful.

What does the attempt on Navalny’s life tell us about this pattern and how effective it is? First, a deeper understanding of fear shows that a regime can kill its opponents infrequently—much less than during historical examples of mass repression—yet still effectively use fear as a tool of control. Second, the use of poison created uncertainty around the attempt on Navalny’s life, and this uncertainty was a tool to intimidate people and purposefully stifle opposition. However, the failure of the political killing left the Russian security services looking anemic and opened the regime up to scrutiny by the investigative reporting from Bellingcat.

A modern strategy of fear

I argue that Russia uses violence to silence dissent and may be employing a strategy of fear. Between 1992 and 2019, the murder of 31 journalists was attributed to Russian government officials, military officials, or political groups.2 Yet, rule by fear is not a “popular” tactic employed by contemporary autocrats according to current literature. Scholars Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev argue that rule by fear is not the strategy of 21st-century autocrats, like Russian president Vladimir Putin, because autocratic leaders are less likely to rely on violent repression and more likely to use information manipulation to silence dissent.3 Mass terror is more costly today because of highly educated populations’ lower tolerance for repression and the increased visibility of repression due to interconnected societies, human rights groups, and mass communication and surveillance technologies.4  

Contrary to Treisman and Guriev’s expectations, what is Russia doing and why would it still employ this fear-based strategy? To answer this question, one must examine how emotions influence political behavior and how leaders can use emotions to their benefit. Fear elicits a fight or flight response and is caused by the “cognition that a situation is dangerous.”5 Clearly, for a regime critic or would-be critic, threat of death is a dangerous situation whether it be via poisoning or shooting. Feelings of fear can suppress regime-damaging behavior because fear enhances the action tendency of “self-preservation,”6 and privileges “defensive reaction.”7

Even without the mass terror of 20th-century autocrats, fear can be effective through targeted killings. A little fear goes a long way for three reasons: 1) fearful people make pessimistic risk assessments,7  2) fear-driven inference can socially amplify fear,8  and 3) fearful people focus on the source of the threat.9  Fearful people’s pessimistic assessment of risk is desirable for a state looking to suppress internal dissent because potential critics would be deterred from risking regime critique. For example, fearful people are likely to pick a safe bet,10  so a targeted killing could cause a fearful journalist to avoid a news story critical of the Russian state. 

Less violence can still inspire fear because of a psychological phenomenon called fear-driven inference. This negative feedback loop deepens the effects of fear because initial feelings of fear become evidence that the appraisal of fear is correct.11 From the state’s perspective, this negative feedback loop could induce the ideal type of paranoia and anxiety12  that prevents regime-damaging behavior. Additionally, emotions are amplified socially across social networks,13  so the spread of fear-driven inference ensures that the effect of political killing impacts observers across the political system, not just those close to the victim. Thus fear-driven inference inflates the fear produced by political killing so that observing would-be regime critics might fear the state will target them next, even if relatively few critics end up dead. Thus, fear can heighten the perception of the probability of being killed. Making matters worse, fearful people in uncertain conditions collect information, process it with bias, and focus only on “the source of threat.”14  Together, the attention funneling caused by fear-driven inference and the action tendencies of those with fear mean that a regime can employ targeted killings infrequently and still have a significant fear impact. Today, 21st-century autocrats concentrate on using fear with precision by killing more selectively and capitalizing on the uncertainty of their crimes.

Applying the fear theory to Navalny

In October 2020, about two months after the poisoning, Navalny was interviewed by the Russian news website MediaZona. In this interview, Navalny expressed the power of fear and its effect on the opposition in general. Navalny said that he thought the primary goal of the attempted murder was to weaken the opposition, but also more broadly: “to intimidate a large number of people. People are more afraid of these things [poisoning] than bullets.”15 Using the word "intimidate" frequently, he essentially states the fear-based argument, that the goal of the killings is to make people afraid, and that the state recognizes that poisoning, a private killing, is more fear-inducing than shooting, a public killing. He went on to say that the reason it was more frightening and more challenging to contest was because of its uncertainty: “This is the trick of this murder format because everything is very unclear.”16 This lack of certainty is associated with appraisals of fear, and a lack of someone to blame makes fear more likely than anger. 

Navalny said that he thought Putin authorized the murder stating that “clearly Putin personally revels in the idea that he has a battalion of invisible assassins,”17  which emphasizes both Putin’s agency and the idea that he enjoys causing fear. But he argued that the deeper reason for poisoning is a lack of control on the part of the Russian leadership: “they also poison people—precisely because they feel that the earth is slipping from under their feet.”18  According to Navalny, Russia is poisoning individuals out of desperation.

When considering imprisonment versus killing, Navalny indicated that he thought the regime mistakenly associated long prison sentences with "heroization," arguing instead that he thought killings produced martyrs.19  He thought that the Kremlin wanted to avoid any positive press for those targeted. When asked if he thought the Kremlin considered international backlash in planning the murder, he said no, because the state assumed he would die. Therefore, they would be able to pass it off naturally, and no one would be able to investigate. He mentioned that he thought Putin was annoyed with the result of the prior Zelyonka incident (bright green antiseptic dye thrown in Navalny's face in 2017) because “the Kremlin was more likely to get angry since I would get sympathy” due to the eye surgery needed.20  

When Navalny was asked why he thought the regime let him leave Russia for the treatment, he argued that “it would have been on the conscience of the regime for sure” if he died,21  but not necessarily because they felt guilty. Instead, it would be because of the sympathy and heroization he would receive. Ideally, for the Russian state, these killings do not result in martyrdom for the individual, and therefore potentially cut off the fear-fight action tendency or the anger-prosecute action tendency. However, Navalny has become even more of a symbol after the poisoning as his January 2021 arrest spurred some of the largest protests across Russia to date.22  

Despite the media attention on Navalny after this poisoning and denouncements of the action by western media, he stated that he thought the Russian government would use poison again, musing, “Who else will they poison tomorrow?”23

Navalny’s MediaZona interview presents a Russian regime that is purposefully using fear to intimidate people and recognizes the specific uncertainty and terror around poisoning as tool of political killing. The Kremlin cares greatly about the optics of these murders, which indicates some form of strategy. Navalny also presents a regime that is slightly unhinged and desperate. However, part of that may be his opposition language since the desperation and inevitability of the collapse of the Putin regime is a common refrain in Navalny's speeches and writings. 

State power and the security services 

Who is responsible for these attempted killings? The security services are the main actor that carry out these killings. The failure of the security services to successfully kill Sergei Skripal24 and Navalny could demonstrate that the attempt, and not the kill, is the goal—or that the security services have suffered operational failures. Bellingcat investigative reports show more evidence for the latter. In the case of Navalny, “it would have been impossible to properly dose and administer a less-than-lethal amount of a chlorinese inhibitor nerve agent of the Novichok type.”25  There are a few other details within the Bellingcat investigation that appear as tradecraft failures. First, the August 2020 attempt was the third attempt to poison Navalny since 2017.26  The failure made the FSB a laughingstock; while poking jest at the failed poisoning and tradecraft failures by the elite FSB team, one Novaya gazeta journalist quipped, “how did the FSB turn out to be less professional than Madame Bovary?”27  Second, the FSB appears to only have become aware that an involved FSB officer mistakenly admitted to the poisoning after the Bellingcat report was published because the FSB arrived at the officer’s apartment about 10 minutes after the report was posted.28  Third, during the approximately three years that FSB officers trailed Navalny within Russia, officers violated operational security protocols by improperly turning on cellphones, resulting in geolocation data for Bellingcat to collect.29  These operational failures leave the FSB looking weak, which is another negative externality of the fear-inducing poisoning strategy. Moreover, the very existence of Bellingcat’s investigation took away residual uncertainty about the attempted murder that had contributed to heightened fear.  

Is a strategy of fear effective?

Putin and his regime are certainly a 21st-century autocracy, but that does not mean that fear is absent or they hide violence from public view as an informational autocrat should.30  Fear-driven inference and the pessimistic risk assessments of fearful individuals amplify the effect of comparatively low levels of violence. But individuals using 21st-century investigative tools at Bellingcat have taken some of the impact out of the strategy of fear by removing uncertainty about the murder's perpetrators and methods. When people have someone to blame definitively for a threatening activity, they are more likely to become angry instead of fearful,31  which is just what Bellingcat provided, and angry people are more likely to continue their opposition. Today, a strategy of fear may have more negative externalities than previously understood.

1   Bellingcat, “‘If It Hadn’t Been for the Prompt Work of the Medics’: FSB Officer Inadvertently Confesses Murder Plot to Navalny” (Bellingcat, December 21, 2020), https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/12/21/if-it-hadnt-been-for-the-prompt-work-of-the-medics-fsb-officer-inadvertently-confesses-murder-plot-to-navalny/; Bellingcat, “FSB Team of Chemical Weapon Experts Implicated in Alexey Navalny Novichok Poisoning” (Bellingcat, December 14, 2020), https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/12/14/fsb-team-of-chemical-weapon-experts-implicated-in-alexey-navalny-novichok-poisoning/.

2 Committee to Protect Journalists, Journalists Killed Data, https://cpj.org/data/killed/?status=Killed&motiveConfirmed%5B%5D=Confirmed&motiveUnconfirmed%5B%5D=Unconfirmed&type%5B%5D=Journalist&cc_fips%5B%5D=RS&start_year=1992&end_year=2020&group_by=year. The Committee to Protect Journalists is a US-based nonprofit devoted to press freedom.

3 Guriev, Sergei and Treisman, Daniel. “Informational Autocrats,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 33, no. 4 (November 1, 2019): 101–2, 110–13, https://doi.org/10.1257/jep.33.4.100. Treisman and Guriev label Putin as one of these quintessential “informational autocrats."

4 Guriev and Treisman. 102.

5 Petersen, Roger and Liaras, Evangelos. “Countering Fear in War: The Strategic Use of Emotion,” Journal of Military Ethics 5, no. 4 (2006): 317, https://doi.org/10.1080/15027570601086886.

6 Petersen and Liaras. 320.

7 Lerner, Jennifer S and Keltner, Dacher. “Fear, Anger, and Risk,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 1 (2001): 146, 150, 152, https://doi.org/10.1037//O022-3514.81.1.146.

8 Thagard, Paul and Nussbaum, A David. “Fear-Driven Inference: Mechanisms of Gut Overreaction,” Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Et 8 (2014): 49, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-37428-9_3.

9 Halperin, Eran. Emotions in Conflict: Inhibitors and Facilitators of Peace Making, 78.

10 Lerner and Keltner. 149.

11 Thagard and Nussbaum. “Fear-Driven Inference: Mechanisms of Gut Overreaction,” 43–44.

12 Thagard and Nussbaum. “Fear-Driven Inference: Mechanisms of Gut Overreaction,” 47.

13 Thagard and Nussbaum. “Fear-Driven Inference: Mechanisms of Gut Overreaction,” 49.

14 Halperin. 78.

15 Smirnov, Sergei, “‘There Was a Plane, and I Died in It.’ Interview with Alexey Navalny (‘bil Samolyot, i v Neyom Ya Pomer’. Intervyu Alekseya Navalnovo),” Zona Media, October 7, 2020, https://zona.media/article/2020/10/06/navalny.

16 Smirnov,  Intervyu Alekseya Navalnovo, Zona Media, October 7, 2020.

17 Smirnov, Interview with Alexey Navalny, Zona Media, October 7, 2020.

18 Smirnov, Interview with Alexey Navalny, Zona Media, October 7, 2020.

19 Smirnov, Interview with Alexey Navalny, Zona Media, October 7, 2020. Navalny referred to dissidents killed in East Germany who have monuments to them which last “forever” (since he was in Germany giving the interview).

20 Smirnov,  Interview with Alexey Navalny, Zona Media, October 7, 2020.

21 Smirnov,  Interview with Alexey Navalny, Zona Media, October 7, 2020.

22 Troianovski, Anton, Kramer, Andrew E. , and Higgins, Andrew, “In Aleksei Navalny Protests, Russia Faces Biggest Dissent in Years,” New York Times, January 23, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/23/world/europe/navalny-protests-russia.html.

23 Smirnov,  Interview with Alexey Navalny, Zona Media, October 7, 2020.

24 Urban, Mark, “Russian Spy Poisoning: How the Skripals Were Saved,” BBC News, May 29, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-44278609.

25 Bellingcat, “‘If It Hadn’t Been for the Prompt Work of the Medics’: FSB Officer Inadvertently Confesses Murder Plot to Navalny.”

26 Bellingcat, The first was allegedly while he was in a detention center on July 28, 2017, and the second was when he was on vacation in Kaliningrad on July 2, 2020.

27 Latynina, Yulia. “Gulfikgeit,” Novaya Gazeta, December 21, 2020.

28 “FBK Lawyer Lyubov Sobol Was Detained Near the House of the Alleged Accomplice in the Assassination Attempt on Navalny (Yurist FBK Lyuboc Sokol Zadepzhali Vozle Doma Predpolagaemovo Soichastnika Pokusheniya Na Navalnovo),” Novaya Gazeta, December 21, 2020, https://novayagazeta.ru/news/2020/12/21/166633-yurista-fbk-lyubov-sobol-zaderzhali-vozle-doma-predpolagaemogo-souchastnika-pokusheniya-na-navalnogo.

29 Bellingcat, “FSB Team of Chemical Weapon Experts Implicated in Alexey Navalny Novichok Poisoning.”

30 Guriev and Treisman.

31 Petersen and Liaras. “Countering Fear in War: The Strategic Use of Emotion,” 320.