Putin had Navalny killed to thwart prisoner swap, allies claim

Alexei Navalny’s allies have alleged that Vladimir Putin had the opposition leader killed in jail to sabotage a prisoner swap in which Navalny would have been exchanged for a convicted hitman jailed in Germany.

Maria Pevchikh, a close ally of the opposition leader, said in a video that Navalny and two US nationals were in line to be exchanged for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian FSB security service hitman who is serving a life sentence in Germany for the assassination of a Chechen former separatist in Berlin.

“Navalny should have been free in the next few days because we had secured a decision to exchange him,” Pevchikh said. “I received confirmation that the negotiations were at their final stage on the evening of 15 February.” Navalny was reported dead on 16 February.

Pevchikh’s video address comes days after Navalny’s widow, Yulia, promised that his team would soon tell the world “why exactly Putin killed Alexei”.

Pevchikh alleged that Navalny was killed because the Russian president could not tolerate the thought of him being free. “I’m telling you this story so that you have an answer to the question of why Navalny was killed now,” she said.

She claimed Putin decided to “get rid of the object of bargaining” by killing Navalny so that Krasikov could be exchanged for someone else. “It’s absolutely illogical … It’s the behaviour of a mad mafioso,” she said.

The Russian authorities claim Navalny, Putin’s most formidable domestic opponent, fell unconscious and died after a walk at the “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony. Russia later said Navalny died of natural causes.

Sources with knowledge of the matter said there were “discussions” to involve Krasikov in a swap deal with Navalny and other prisoners held in Russia, but the sources said it was unclear whether Putin had at any point agreed on exchanging Navalny.

In recent months there had been growing murmurs that western leaders might try to include Navalny’s name in a list of people to be part of a potential prisoner exchange between Russia and the west. The German papers Bild and Zeit reported that German authorities had discussed exchanging Navalny for Krasikov.

Sergei Guriev, an economist and longtime Navalny ally, told the Guardian in September that he knew from “direct and indirect” correspondence with Navalny that the politician’s insistence that he would remain in Russia no longer applied. Citing US officials, the New York Times reported that German officials were asking for Navalny to be released in any deal that would have freed Krasikov, though they did not indicate a deal was close.

The German government on Monday said it was aware of media reports of a planned prisoner swap for Navalny and said it could not comment.

Pevchikh said Navalny’s allies had been working since the start of the Ukraine war on a plan to get him out of Russia as part of a prisoner exchange involving “Russian spies in exchange for political prisoners”.

She alleged the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich passed on the proposal to swap Navalny and two US citizens for jailed hitman Krasikov. She said she had contacted Abramovich and he had neither confirmed nor denied having served as an informal negotiator in the talks. There was no immediate reponse from Abramovich after she made the claim.

Pevchikh did not name the two US citizens who would be part of the swap, though Putin previously said he was open to exchanging the jailed US journalist Evan Gershkovich for Krasikov.

Russia has long sought to involve Krasikov in a prisoner exchange with the west. Moscow previously requested that Krasikov be released in a swap for the US marine Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia. The US at the time was unable to deliver on the request for Krasikov.

Pevchikh said her team had made desperate efforts and tried to find intermediaries, even approaching Henry Kissinger, but said western governments had failed to show the necessary political will.

“Officials, American and German, nodded their heads in understanding. They recounted how important it was to help Navalny and political prisoners, they shook hands, made promises and did nothing,” she said.

Navalny is just the latest of Putin’s opponents to have died over the course of Russian leader’s nearly 25 years in power. His body was returned to his mother on Saturday for burial.

His funeral location has not yet been announced, though he is expected to be buried in Moscow.

Navalny’s team have said they were looking for a venue where his supporters could publicly bid him farewell later this week. “We are looking for a hall for a public farewell to Alexei … If you have a suitable venue, please contact us,” Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh wrote on X.

Yarmysh said the idea was to hold the event, which is separate from a funeral, by the end of the working week.