In the world of spy vs. spy, things are always murky. The public got a glimpse into that shadowy world last week when anonymous officials from the American intelligence community leaked to the Wall Street Journalthe results of their investigation into the death earlier this year of dissident Alexei Navalny. The verdict: Putin did not order Navalny killed.

This is contrary to what President Joe Biden claimed at the time. “Make no mistake. Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death,” he said. Many commentators leapt to the conclusion that Navalny had been “murdered.”

Skeptical voices were heard early on, including from some unlikely sources. Ukraine’s hardline intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, said two weeks after Navalny’s death, “I may disappoint you, but as far as we know, he indeed died as a result of a blood clot. And this has been more or less confirmed.” (Budanov has also said that he thinks Yevgeny Prigozhin might still be alive.) 

The Journal story came out just a week after widow Yulia Navalnaya graced the cover of TIME magazine as one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2024. Vice President Kamala Harris contributed the blurb for Navalnaya, lauding her as a “courageous fighter” and “a symbol of democratic values.” 

The intelligence sources who spoke to the Journal did not offer any bombshell evidence or any alternative explanation for Navalny’s death. The reasoning behind the new assessment, as far as it has been disclosed, is mostly based on logic that people like yours truly offered back in February: Putin did not stand to gain much by Navalny’s death; he risked losing a valuable piece of leverage; the timing on the eve of the Munich Security Conference could not have been worse for Putin.

So why did our intelligence community leak this now? On the surface, there seems to be little reason to do so. Rallying support for the war in Ukraine depends on painting Putin as a cold-blooded murderer, the kind of person who would order the death of a dissident. Yulia Navalnaya’s future as the standard-bearer for her husband’s cause depends on her status as the widow of a martyr. Even if our government did conclude that Putin did not order Navalny killed, why not keep that conclusion to themselves?

The explanation may lie in Ukraine’s worsening battlefield position. The Russian line is advancing and Ukraine’s forces are unlikely to be able to turn the tide even with a new infusion of Western arms. The time for negotiating an end to this war may be approaching.

Right now, the biggest obstacle to negotiations—apart from Ukraine’s willingness to come to the table—is a lack of trust on the Russian side. The last time they negotiated a peace in Ukraine, the West used it merely to buy time to prepare for the next round of fighting. The Kremlin doubts that the West will negotiate in good faith, a sentiment compounded by the readiness of leaders like Biden to indulge in rhetorical excesses that demonize the Russian leader (calling him “a killer”) or dispute his legitimacy (“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”).

Before the Russians agree to sit down at the table, they could reasonably demand some concrete demonstration that the Western side is willing to meet them halfway. Letting Putin off the hook for Navalny’s death is one way to do that. If we can’t publicly admit we were wrong to accuse Putin of ordering a jail-yard hit, how can the Russians expect us to give any ground on the things they really care about, like pledging that Ukraine will not join NATO in the next decade?

The fact that our intelligence agencies told the truth publicly is the silver lining. The dark cloud is this: If Washington felt compelled to accede to Russian demands for a prerequisite to negotiations, Ukraine’s battlefield position must be dire indeed. Russia must be in a strong negotiating position if they are willing to make demands that, if we did not meet them, would leave Ukraine’s fate to be decided not at the negotiating table but on the battlefield.

Originally found on American Conservative. Read More

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