Murder Most Foul — But How Strange and Unnatural?

By Timothy Furnish Published on February 18, 2024

Alexei Navalny has died in a Russian prison.  An outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin and the country’s ruling elite, he perished under mysterious circumstances. No official cause of death was given. But four years ago he’d been poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era neurotoxin, and barely survived. So odds are that Navalny didn’t fall through Arctic ice. Or get eaten by a polar bear.

Yes, Putin Orders Killings

Baiting Russia’s ruling bear has long been a dangerous game. Those who do so often find themselves done in by Earl Grey. Or ejected from upper-story windows. Sometimes both. Thus, it’s hard to blame President Biden’s teleprompter, which left no doubt that Vlad the Defenestrater was guilty as charged. “Putin is responsible. What happened to Navalny is yet more proof of Putin’s brutality.” It also, unsurprisingly, told Joe to link this event to more Ukraine funding.

Russia Continues This Soviet Practice

Russia, like the USSR before it, uses assassination as a tool of statecraft. For both polities, such killings had two goals. Domestically, to show political critics they could neither run nor hide. Abroad, to make the leader(s) and the Russian state appear powerful. There is one major difference between Soviet and Russian targeted murders. In the former, as in The Godfather, they were “nothing personal, just business.” Whereas now, they “may be motivated by a desire to avoid bad press as much as Realpolitick.

Still, these assassinations are “not some new form of warfare, but a continuation of Moscow’s struggle to divide and undermine the West for over a century.” Putin, in the case of Navalny and others, has committed “murder most foul.” But is it “strange and unnatural?” (Hamlet, I, 5).

Others Countries Assassinate, Too

For Russia is not alone in this type of brutality. Israelis have also practiced assassination for a century, even going back to before Israel existed as a state. Ukraine has been assassinating Russians for two years. And that doesn’t include American journalist Gonzalo Lira. He was arrested for criticizing the Ukraine’s government, and died (probably) of medical neglect in a Ukrainian prison. India runs perhaps the world’s most robust program of taking out enemies — both at home and overseas. The latest example? The killing of a Sikh separatist in Canada last fall.

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Of course, the first two examples differ significantly from what Putin does. Israel has hunted down Nazis and Islamic opponents with good reason. Ukraine kills Russian military leaders to help fight off the invasion. But India (allegedly) executes perceived threats wherever it finds them. So the world’s largest despotism, and the largest democracy, both engage in similar assassinations.

The US Does It, Too

What about the world’s oldest democracy? The United States does not have clean hands on this issue. During the Cold War the CIA planned to assassinate half-a-dozen world leaders. President Ford officially outlawed “political assassinations” in 1975. But subsequent Chief Executives have gotten around that Order ever since. Mainly by claiming to be, rather, trying to terminate terrorist threats.  Hence Reagan’s bombing of Qadhafi’s tent. Bush I and Clinton targeting Saddam’s palace. And of course these killings ramped up after 9/11, after which the Bush II, Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have whacked thousands (at least) of alleged terrorists — mostly Muslim jihadists. Most of these were killed under Obama. At least four, like Anwar al-Awlaki, were American citizens.

Brennan Devised the Plan

Under Obama, the kill list was formalized into a “disposition matrix.” One that’s open-ended in time. And with no geographic limits. Thus readily available to be used on American soil. Who devised the fiendishly brilliant blueprint? Why, former CIA director John Brennan, of course. The same evil mastermind who ran the illegal spying on candidate Trump and his associates. And basically created the Russia “Collusion” hoax.

True, since 9/11 America has aimed its assassinations overseas, overwhelmingly at non-citizens. If you don’t count the curious case of Jeffrey Epstein. And the January 6 defendants driven to suicide, as John Zmirak points out.

Machiavelli and Shakespeare on Assassination

Niccolò Machiavelli, in his (in)famous work The Prince, held up murder as an indispensable tool of politicians. And thus morally defensible. Or perhaps beyond morality’s reach. Eliot Cohen, in his 2023 The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule and Fall, discusses this topic. He distinguishes between rulers who “kill in a limited fashion” and “those who wallow in slaughter.”

Cohen views Henry IV as the former, Richard III as the latter. Henry may have murdered his way to the crown. But as king “he resorts to murder because he believes he needs it, not because he necessarily likes it.” Richard, however, “positively revels in being hated.” He is “cold-blooded” and the only humans he seems to like are the murderers he sends forth to do his bidding. Order enough such killings and “one ceases to disguise the commission of murder.”

Which Kind of Killer is Putin?

Western portrayals of Putin, in the media and by politicians, automatically assume he’s Hitler or Stalin — Richard III, that is. But at the risk of being accused of blatant Tuckerism, I think Putin is more Henry IV. (Distinguishing the Russian assassination policy from its war in Ukraine, which is in a different register. We don’t brand LBJ a mass murderer for the war in Vietnam, for example.)

Which is not all that reassuring. In fact, it makes Putin more dangerous — because he’s not, in fact, a mass-murdering madman. Perhaps the best we can hope for, without  Trump in office, is that he restricts his usage of assassination to poisoned tea and open windows. Not launching nukes from space.


Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS). He currently writes for and consults The Stream on International Security matters.

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