The three Russian Ns of 2020: Navalny, Novichok, and Neutrollization

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On 20 August 2020, the flagship of Russian non-systemic opposition Alexey Navalny was poisoned in the city of Tomsk. The poison used was a new version of the chemical warfare agent ‘Novichok’, one of the banned chemical weapons from Soviet times. After Navalny passed out on a flight heading to Moscow, the plane crew performed an emergency landing in Omsk, while the doctors who took over Navalny’s unconscious body injected him with a timely dose of atropine, a common nerve agent antidote. These swift actions of the plane crew and the doctors, as well as all the efforts by Navalny’s family, colleagues and friends, who managed to evacuate him two days later to the Berlin-based hospital Charité saved Navalny’s life. The incident brought reputational calamity upon the Kremlin and forced it to devise a strategy to repair losses.

In 2018, Xymena Kurowska and I published a research article about an online disinformation strategy used by the Internet Research Agency (aka ‘the troll factory’) based in Saint Petersburg, Russia. We called this strategy ‘neutrollization’ and demonstrated how Russian pro-Kremlin internet trolls used it to mitigate the negative publicity effects for the Kremlin after the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, one of the leaders of Russian non-systemic opposition.[1] Neutrollization is a technique of shielding the regime not by pushing for a specific political position or version of an event. It rather proliferates different (sometimes utterly bizarre) versions and positions, thus crowding out genuine civil society voices, making serious engagement meaningless and rendering online political debate futile. In doing so, the regime protects itself from the civil society’s rhetorical mobilization and other associated challenges without having to block the internet in an openly authoritarian manner.

Back then, this strategy was used on a relatively limited scale and only within certain pockets of online space, infrequently trespassing into the wider public discourse (e.g. as in the case when Russian national television was spreading outlandish conspiracy theories about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17). By 2020, it has become evident that neutrollization has turned into a fully-fledged political strategy used by the Kremlin on both domestic and international levels.

Two (dis)similar incidents

It is common to compare this incident to what happened to Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. This comparison is valid with regards to the weapon of choice. Yet, when it comes to the political context and the state’s reaction that followed, it is much more expedient to compare it to Nemtsov’s assassination in 2015, a parallel few people draw for some reason. In the public eye, both men were the leaders of the non-systemic opposition and seemed to have suffered for their political activity and beliefs. Thus, regardless of the true motives and paymasters involved, the regime had to react to both incidents minding its political, rather than simply legal rationality.

The stunning similarity of response strategies, initially developed and tested by pro-Kremlin trolls (in Nemtsov’s case) and then adopted and amplified by the authorities (in the Navalny affair), indicate that the regime has mastered neutrollization. The regime is using it to thwart the attempts of the Russian civil society and Western political actors, such as the EU, to accuse the Kremlin and hold it accountable for its wrongdoings. No doubt, context and audience matter, when it comes neutrollization’s success. What worked well with Nemtsov may backfire with Navalny, especially given the gravity of the violation (use of chemical weapons) and the international resonance it spurred. Yet, before discussing the effects, let us first have a look at the strategy.

Russia’s initial reaction: the world is a dangerous place!

Similarly to what happened after Nemtsov’s assassination, the Kremlin neither hurried to formulate its official version(s) immediately after the incident with Navalny, nor settled on any one (or several) minimally plausible explanation as time went by. Instead, Russian officials and medical administrators cast the widest possible net weaved out of manifestly implausible versions and offered it to the public very shortly after the event, before the exact substance that the politician was poisoned with was identified.[2] Aleksandr Sabaev, the chief toxicologist of Siberian Federal District and Omsk Region (where Navalny was first hospitalized), proposed an impressive list of at least eight possible reasons that could have caused Navalny’s health breakdown: diet, alcohol, stress, overfatigue, hypothermia, hyperthermia, lack of breakfast, and carbohydrate metabolism disorder. He also insisted that no traces of poison were found in Navalny’s body, when he was first tested in Omsk.

After several laboratories in Germany, Sweden and France confirmed that the politician was indeed poisoned by Novichok, this discovery was met with suspicion. Among those who proposed possible malevolent versions was chemist Vladimir Uglev, one of the creators of Novichok. He suggested that only someone from Navalny’s close circle could have organized the poisoning. According to him, the only plausible way the politician could have come in contact with the poison (given the dynamics of his condition) was through touch. What is more, the object he allegedly touched should have been handed to him directly, to avoid unnecessary casualties. This, Uglev insisted, “only a very close person could do.” The insinuated conclusion is obvious: Navalny fell victim to treason or revenge organized by someone from the opposition, while the Kremlin had nothing to do with it. 

Official response: conspiracy all-around

Due to potential severity of the crime and possible international repercussions, the Russian authorities could not stay silent for long. The authorities’ response, however, seems to have followed the neutrollization logic by the book. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published at least three comments about the incident on their official platforms, each suggesting some form of conspiracy against Russia. As conspiracy theories’ logic goes, the Ministry started with trying to poke holes in the most plausible version. They also suggested that the whole thing was obviously “staged … to politicise this incident … [and] accus[e] Russia of violating the Chemical Weapons Convention.” Russia’s explanation of who exactly would do such a thing and why they would do it remained vague, as neutrollization requires. It could have been “Germany [whose] actions were so well-coordinated that a lot of questions started to surface.” It may have been “Berlin’s … Euro-Atlantic allies in cooperation with the heads of the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] Technical Secretariat” that collaborated to swiftly publish a report about Navalny’s poisoning on the organization’s website. It may have been the US, whose Ministry of Defence’s research centre allegedly possessed Novichok already in 1998, and later developed a whole family of toxic chemicals that are now available in “at least 20 Western countries … in around 140 varieties.”

Finally, Vladimir Putin himself, during his talk with Emmanuel Macron, allegedly “stonewalled with denials and offered dubious explanations for Mr. Navalny’s poisoning.” His explanations, however, seemed even less plausible than all of those mentioned above. According to Le Monde, Putin suggested that Navalny could have simulated the poisoning, since he had had a history of simulating illnesses before.[3] Most provokingly, however, the Russian President suspected that Navalny could have taken the poison, which sent him into coma for almost 20 days, knowingly and on purpose. It also stands to mentioned that one leitmotif that accompanied the affair was pushed by the President’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, among many others, who insisted time and again that Navalny’s poisoning was not in the interests of the Russian political elite, especially Putin. This message was also one of the key themes included into the guidelines for internet trolls after Nemtsov’s assassination.

Manufacturers of confusion

One month after the poisoning, Navalny tweeted, “I am a bit confused … the Kremlin must have created a separate department to come up with various new versions of my poisoning.” He certainly meant this as a joke. From the standpoint of neutrollization, however, this joke may be woven with a few threads of truths. In its online form, neutrollization is an industrialized practice which draws heavily on its capacity to make the heads of its target audience spin. The most plausible version of some damaging event is strategically flooded with half-truths and bare-faced lies – not to convince, but to confuse the audience. Unlike conventional propaganda, which always aims at encouraging political support for a given political system, neutrollization encourages cynicism and disengagement. In this sense, the more numerous and outrageous the lies are, the better, since the feeling of confusion could then be intensified by the feeling of disgust. Concluding that all politics is filth, a bona fide member of the public often chooses to disengage from the conversation, and hence – from politics.

At least, this is how neutrollization works when deployed online, when there is a possibility to hire precarious workers who could create content day and night. The luxury of anonymity makes it possible for one employee of a troll factory to write on behalf of many handles at once, as it was happening after Nemtsov’s assassination. Those handles’ profiles could either be carefully crafted to match the expected social position of their presumed, but non-existent owners, or remain barren, when the key aim is quantity, and not quality. Bot technology can automate this process, to some extent. It is notoriously difficult to estimate the scope of neutrollization. However, research showed that already in 2014-2015, a crucially important moment in Russian politics that followed the annexation of Crimea, among the Twitter accounts actively tweeting about Russian politics, the proportion of bot-generated tweets exceeded 50%. There also exist first-hand and third-party accounts confirming that neutrollization was used deliberately on the international level to spur confusion and tilt the balance of some of the most important political events, such as the US elections, in Russia’s favour. What is more, neutrollization is no longer limited to social media (nor to Russia, for that matter). Its variations, among others, include creating fake news outlets and organizing exhibitions, while its subversive methods certainly have a global appeal.

Yet, an attempt of neutrollization carried out publicly by a country’s topmost officials, as it is happening before our eyes right now, may work out very differently for the actors involved. Context and audience matter, which means that the same political move creates different effects in different environments. First, unlike at home and in social networks, where Russia can invest a lot of resources to act from the position of strength and undermine other voices, in official world politics, it has to act from the position of weakness. As we argued elsewhere, from an almighty troll it turns into a crafty (but also vulnerable) trickster. Second, formal politicians cannot enjoy the luxury of anonymity, and every lie has a certain face attached to it, while their main audience consisting of diplomats, foreign politicians, and broader publics, do not really have the option to withdraw. Russia can be banned from some clubs and agreements, but it cannot be banned from the world, and hence, interaction is unavoidable. How to manage such interaction is the pivotal question, but, perhaps, possible answers to it should be sought not in the mainstream political manuals centred on rational actors and zero-sum games, but in the cultural, psychological and anthropological sources describing tricksters and trolls.

[1] The distinction between systemic (i.e. parliamentary) and non-systemic opposition is crucial for Russia, as the parties represented in the parliament are widely believed to have been co-opted by the regime and to be used to create a semblance of genuine political debate, while being incapable of bringing about a genuine political change. The amount of institutional and administrative resources the government spends on pressuring the rule-following non-systemic political organizations, such as Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, speak in favour of that.

[2] I thank my research assistant Anna Gorbatiuk from Webster Vienna Private University, who helped me a lot with collecting different versions of Navalny’s poisoning.

[3] Until the date of this publication, it remains unknown which previous simulations Putin referred to.

Anatoly Reshetnikov is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Webster Vienna Private University. Previously he has been a Visiting Lecturer at Central European  University and a Visiting Researcher at Lund University and University  College London.

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