Navalny murdered to take his name out of play in a high profile prisoner swap deal

Navalny murdered to take his name out of play in a high profile prisoner swap deal
The West was insisting that opposition figure Navalny be part of a high profile prisoner swap deal, so the Kremlin murdered him to take that chip off the table, his supporters claim. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews February 26, 2024

Opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was murdered ahead of a planned high profile prisoner swap, his supporters announced on February 26 to “take that bargaining chip off the table.”

Maria Pevchikh, head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a video statement that an offer was made to President Vladimir Putin in early February to exchange FSB-linked Vadim Krasikov, who was convicted in Germany for a the so-called Tiergarten assassination and given a life sentence, for Navalny and two American citizens.

"I received the confirmation that negotiations were at the final stage on the evening of February 15," Pevchikh said in her statement, without identifying the Americans involved. “Navalny was supposed to be free in the coming days."

Efforts to secure the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former US Marine Paul Whelan have been ongoing for more than a year.

Putin said in an interview with Tucker Carlson earlier this month that talks on a possible swap were ongoing and it was possible. Putin alluded to Krasikov's case in terms that distinctly identified the killer, but he didn’t name him by name, referring only to a “patriot who eliminated a bandit in a European capital."

Krasikov was convicted of shooting dead Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in 2019, a Chechen-Georgian rebel commander living in exile in Berlin .

Pevchikh described the swap as "one of the obvious ways to save Navalny" and said negotiation efforts had been underway for two years, involving Western officials.

However, Putin was told that no swap could be completed that did not include Navalny. Pevchikh suggested this combination was unacceptable to the Kremlin, which decided to “take that bargaining chip off the table.”

In her speech only days after Navalny’s death, his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said in a video statement as she prepares to step into her dead husband’s shoes: “We know how and why my husband died and we will let you know in only a few day’s time.”

A Western official familiar with the negotiations told the NYT that “early discussions” on a possible prisoner swap was underway when Navalny died, contested the Navalny team’s portrayal of the talks as being in their final stages on February 16.  The official said agreement had not appeared imminent, and it was unclear how inclined Russia and Germany were to make such a trade.
“No formal offer had been made, but early discussions to this effect were underway,” the official told the NYT.

Navalny himself was not aware of the details of the talks but knew his potential release through a prisoner exchange was being discussed, according to his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh.

“He understood there were some talks going on, but he didn’t know any details,” Yarmysh told the NYT.

Navalny died suddenly and unexpectedly on February 16 in the high security “Polar Wolf” prison camp in Russia’s Far North. He had appeared in court by video link the day before in apparent good health and high spirits. According to the official version, Navalny fell ill and suddenly collapsed, dying shortly afterwards. The cause of death was a blood clot, according to the penal authorities.

Pevchikh also mentioned that the swap proposal involving Navalny was floated by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has been close to Putin in the first years of Putin’s presidency. Abramovich was also an active player in the early peace negotiation between Russia and Ukraine in the first months of the war that started two years ago.

The German government, through a spokesperson, acknowledged awareness of the reports concerning the planned swap but refrained from commenting, as reported by Deutsche Welle.

Russian authorities only returned Navalny’s body to his mother on February 24, more than a week after his untimely death, and had been trying to pressure her into a secret or private burial.

Navalny’s team announced on February 26 that he would be buried at the end of this week on March 2 in a public ceremony in Moscow.

This story has been updated with comments from Navalny's spokesperson and comments from a US official cited by the New York Times.