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Assassination With Style Points


Remember Evgeny Prigozhin? Founder of the Wagner Group? His plane blown out of the sky by Putin, just last summer? It was a sensational story at the time. I wrote about it myself, here and here.

But despite all the coverage, a particularly chilling detail seems to have eluded everyone but my friend Dennis, who shared with me a remarkable insight that has haunted me ever since:

Putin didn’t just want Prigozhin dead. He wanted Prigozhin to think about it, all the way down to the ground.

Expert analysis of the crash supports this, though nobody talks about it. It’s clear that a bomb was on the plane, and that it blew one of the wings off. Which apparently left the fuselage intact. Which presumably left Prigozhin strapped in his seat, wide awake, with a little more than a minute to contemplate both his political missteps and the meaning of life.

Who knows what his thought process might’ve been, but I’m guessing he thought, even if just for a few of those precious seconds, about Putin.

Prigozhin, of all people, would appreciate the assassination style. Thoughtful. Deliberate. Instructive.

He would understand that to Putin, death is not enough. Putin wants death to make a statement, to go viral, to underscore the futility of resistance and the irrelevance of courage. He wants death with style points. And he generally gets what he wants.

Putin ordered Prigozhin’s disposal without a single thought for the nine other passengers he’d treated to that same minute of urgent introspection. He likes when people think about him.

This is by no means Putin’s only assassination style. Among his more flamboyant techniques is defenestration, the art of tossing journalists, activists, and business executives from high windows. We can only assume that the thugs who do the actual tossing are instructed to make sure their victims are as alert as Prigozhin was, for the whole time they’re in the air. Considerate, yes?

In 2014, Alexander Litvinenko — an early opponent of Putin’s who’d been forced into exile in London — drank some tea spiked with plutonium-210, a radioactive isotope so rare and unobtainable, its presence in his body pointed unmistakably to Putin’s personal involvement. This resulted in a hideously painful radiation sickness that landed Litvinenko in the hospital for almost a month, with no happy ending in sight. He knew he was dying, he had plenty of time to think about it, and he knew exactly who to thank for it. From his deathbed, he very publicly accused Putin of murder.

There is a long list of Russians whose final moments are graced with Putin-ish style points. And now he’s finally gotten around to Alexei Navalny.

It couldn’t have been too difficult. Navalny couldn’t have been far from death to begin with. He’d recently been moved to a brutal prison camp in the Arctic, where there’s no sun at all, and where temperatures rarely get above minus-20. By the time he got there, he’d already spent some 300 days in solitary confinement, in small concrete boxes so inhuman, even the slavish prison authorities feel compelled to limit their use. He was regularly subjected to sleep deprivation, deep-freeze conditions, toxic drugs, and starvation rations.

And this was on top of the Novichok nerve poisoning that had put him in a coma for weeks in 2020. Granted safe passage to Germany — a decision Putin probably now regrets — Navalny managed to recover in a shockingly fast six months. While the residual effects of such trauma could not have been minor, he decided nonetheless to return to Russia, against the advice of most of the Western world. But we can assume that his health had already been seriously compromised, well before his ordeals in the prison system.

Reliable information is almost impossible to come by, so it’s not yet clear whether he died quickly or slowly, from ill health or from a bullet. First reports said he died of a “thromboembolism,” a diagnosis known to be difficult to confirm, and which is reportedly a go-to “cause of death” for prison doctors with awkward paperwork to fill out. “Suicide” is another favorite.

But according to reports from the informal grapevine of prisoners and guards at the camp, two FSB officers —secret policemen — flew in from Moscow a few days before, and were seen disabling the various listening devices and hidden cameras that might have captured whatever chicanery had been planned. Is this true? We’ll probably never know.

The timing, however, seems significant. Navalny’s death occurred during this year’s Munich Security Conference, just in time for Kamala Harris to announce it from the podium.

This was the same high-profile venue where, in 2007, Putin famously gave the speech that burned his bridges with the West. In it, he rejected the entire post-Cold War security architecture and declared existing borders unacceptable. Seven years later he grabbed Crimea and moved on the Donbas. Eight years after that, he invaded Ukraine. He wasn’t invited to the conference this year, but he was certainly talked about. 

And as it happens, one of this year’s participants was Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, who became a widow on opening day. More style points.

It also happens that there’s a presidential election in Russia next month. Putin will be “running” for another term, opposed by a few token candidates who’ve been hand-picked to run against him, but who are preordained to lose in a landslide.

Killing Navalny in the run-up to this election is not a coincidence. Putin expects to have his power emphatically reaffirmed by the Russian people. Or else. Navalny’s murder is an unsubtle reminder of that power.

And yes, Putin appears to be growing feistier. He seems to think that Donald Trump will be restored to the presidency, and that the U.S. will then promptly exit NATO, leaving him free to absorb Ukraine, Finland, a Baltic state or two, and maybe Poland. The odds of these things happening are small, but not zero.

Meanwhile, what Liz Cheney calls “the Putin wing of the Republican party” has succeeded in holding up supplemental funding for Ukraine, much of which would flow to red-state defense contractors. This breathtakingly cynical obstruction is the sole accomplishment of the GOP-run House.

Many have pointed out that killing one’s opponents is a sign of weakness, a sign that there’s nowhere for Putin to go but down. And indeed, his current sugar high does seem delusional, given his massive failures in Ukraine. Whatever his intentions for the future of Eastern Europe, it’s quite clear that he is ill-equipped, both militarily and economically, to carry them out.

That said, there doesn’t seem to be any mechanism short of death — natural or otherwise — that can remove him from power.

The killing of Alexei Navalny lets Putin flaunt his impunity for the world to see — and for Trump to envy. He revels in power for power’s sake. His warped worldview holds that basic humanity is a fatal weakness, and that human life is inconsequential.

That so much of the Republican party finds this so appealing, is appalling.

I have written before about Alexei Navalny, and have long admired him. His death is a gut-punch I’m still absorbing, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in the future. Meanwhile, “Navalny,the Oscar-winning documentary he made prior to his return to Russia, is an absolute must-see. It belongs in the curricula of every Social Studies class, and should be required viewing for American citizens — especially those misguided souls who think Putin is anything but a loathsome monster. This film will set them straight.


  1. Having spoken over the years with a few Russian nationals, I am acutely aware of the famous fatalism they are known for. They pride themselves on enduring the hardship of a repressive regime.

    I dare to hope that Navalny might serve as a martyr and catalyst for change, but it's hard to unknow what I have come to understand about Russian culture. Putin will probably die of old age, semi-senile - - like some other politicians we know - - in office.


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