Lithuania points finger at Russia for attack on Navalny aide

Intelligence officials say attack aimed to stop Russian opposition from influencing Russia’s presidential election.

The street near Volkov's home
Police cordoned off the road where the attack happened [Andrius Sytas/Reuters]

Lithuania has accused Russia of being behind an attack on exiled Russian opposition activist Leonid Volkov, a close ally of Alexey Navalny, who died last month in a remote penal colony.

Gitanas Nauseda, president of the small Baltic nation, said on Wednesday that the overnight attack on Volkov, perpetrated outside the dissident’s home in Vilnius by a hammer-wielding assailant, was clearly premeditated and ties in with other provocations against Lithuania.

“I can only say one thing to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin – nobody is afraid of you here,” he said.

Lithuania’s intelligence service drew links between the attack and Russia’s upcoming presidential election on March 15-17, in which Putin is virtually certain to claim a fifth term.

The Kremlin views Navalny’s team as “the most dangerous opposition force capable of exerting real influence on Russia’s internal processes”, it suggested.

Volkov, who was admitted to hospital after the attack, is one of Russia’s most prominent opposition figures. He previously acted as Navalny’s chief of staff and, until recently, was chair of his non-profit organisation Anti-Corruption Foundation. The Kremlin ordered a warrant for his arrest in 2021.

Following the attack on Tuesday night, Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh wrote on X: “Leonid Volkov has just been attacked outside his house. Someone broke a car window and sprayed tear gas in his eyes, after which the attacker started hitting Leonid with a hammer.”

Volkov’s wife Anna Biryukova also shared photos of her husband’s injuries on social media, including a black eye, a red mark on his forehead and bleeding on his leg, which had soaked through his jeans.

Navalny’s team later shared an image of Volkov being carried into an ambulance on a stretcher and taken to hospital.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis called the assault, which took place at about 10pm local time (20:00 GMT), “shocking”. The “perpetrators will have to answer for their crime”, he wrote on X.

The attack took place nearly a month after Navalny’s unexplained death in the penal colony where he was serving a 19-year prison term on charges of extremism, widely seen as politically motivated.

Navalny, Putin’s fiercest critic, had been jailed since January 2021 when he returned to Moscow to face certain arrest following treatment in Germany after being poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and a network of regional offices were designated as “extremist organisations” by the Russian government that same year.

Navalny’s death, reported by prison authorities on February 16, sent shockwaves around the globe, with opposition figures and Western leaders laying the blame on the Kremlin, which rejected the allegations.

The 47-year-old politician’s funeral in Moscow on March 1 drew thousands of supporters, a rare show of defiance in Putin’s Russia amid a ruthless crackdown on dissent.

Leonid Volkov speaking at an event at the European Parliament in 2021. He has dark hair and a beard. He is sitting on front of a backdrop showing Alexey Navalny being taken away by police.
Volkov was a prominent ally of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny who died last month in a remote penal colony in the Russian Arctic [Frederick Florin/AFP]

Volkov left Russia in 2019 under pressure from the authorities.

Last year, he and his team launched a project called “Navalny’s Campaigning Machine” with the goal of talking to as many Russians as possible, either by phone or online, and turning them against Putin ahead of the presidential election.

Not long before his death, Navalny urged supporters to go to the polls at noon on Sunday, the final day of voting, to demonstrate their discontent with the Kremlin. His allies have been actively promoting the strategy, dubbed “Noon Against Putin”, in recent weeks.

Russian independent news outlet Meduza said it interviewed Volkov several hours before the attack and he said he was worried for his safety following Navalny’s death.

“The key risk now is that we will all be killed. Why, it’s a pretty obvious thing,” the outlet quoted him as saying.

The Lithuanian police said they had been informed a man was beaten outside his home and were investigating.

Police fenced off a pine forest near Volkov’s house on Vilnius’s northern outskirts and officers with dogs and flashlights were seen searching the area late on Tuesday night.

Lithuania, a European Union member, is home to many Russian exiles and has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Volkov also put the blame on Russia. “This is an obvious, typical criminal ‘hello’ from Putin, from criminal Petersburg,” he wrote on Telegram.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies