Ally of late Navalny accuses ‘Putin’s henchmen’ of attacking him in Lithuania, vows not to give up

Police officers inspect the territory near the house of Leonid Volkov, a close associate of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Volkov on Wednesday blamed the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin after he was attacked with a hammer and tear gas outside his home near the Lithuanian capital, where he lives in exile, the late Navalny's anti-corruption foundation said.(AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Police officers inspect the territory near the house of Leonid Volkov, a close associate of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Volkov on Wednesday blamed the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin after he was attacked with a hammer and tear gas outside his home near the Lithuanian capital, where he lives in exile, the late Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation said.(AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — A close associate of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “henchmen” on Wednesday of being behind a brutal attack that left him hospitalized.

Police said an assailant attacked Leonid Volkov on Tuesday as he arrived in a car at his Vilnius home, where he lives in exile. The attacker smashed one of his car’s windows, sprayed tear gas into his eyes and hit him with a hammer, police said.

Volkov suffered a broken arm “and for now he cannot walk because of the severe bruising from the hammer blows,” according to Navalny’s The Anti-Corruption Foundation.

He was hospitalized, but later released, and vowed Wednesday to keep up his work.

“We will work, we will not give up,” 43-year-old Volkov said in a short video posted on Telegram on Wednesday, speaking with his arm bandaged and in a sling. “It was a characteristic bandit greeting from Putin’s henchmen.” This seemed to be a reference to both Putin’s thuggish style and his stint as a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s when it was considered one of the most criminal cities in Russia.

Police have launched a criminal investigation.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, called the attack “shocking.” He wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “Relevant authorities are at work. Perpetrators will have to answer for their crime.”

President Gitanas Nauseda, speaking to reporters, said: “I can only say one thing to Putin —nobody is afraid of you here.”

But the attack in fact underlined a sense of insecurity felt not just by Russian dissidents abroad, but also the many to have fled Belarus seeking safety in Lithuania, Poland and elsewhere.

“Unfortunately Belarussian people can’t feel safe even being abroad,” the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who lives in exile in Lithuania, said. “I think the aim of such attacks is to paralyze people, to paralyze democratic movements.”

Pavel Latushka, a former Belarusian culture minister who is now in exile in Warsaw and receives constant threats, said “it is evident that all boundaries have been breached, and crimes can be committed within the territories of European Union member countries.”

The attack took place nearly a month after Navalny’s unexplained death in a remote Arctic penal colony. He was Russia’s best-known opposition figure and Putin’s fiercest critic. Navalny had been jailed since January 2021 and was serving a 19-year prison term there on the charges of extremism widely seen as politically motivated.

Opposition figures and Western leaders laid the blame on the Kremlin for his death — something officials in Moscow vehemently rejected.

His funeral in the Russian capital on March 1 drew thousands of supporters, a rare show of defiance in Putin’s Russia amid an unabating and ruthless crackdown on dissent, as Navalny’s widow Yulia vowed to continue her late husband’s work.

Volkov used to be in charge of Navalny’s regional offices and election campaigns. Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013 and sought to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Volkov left Russia several years ago under pressure from the authorities.

Last year, Volkov and his team launched a project called “Navalny’s Campaigning Machine,” aiming to contact as many Russians as possible, either by phone or online, seeking to turn them against Putin ahead of the March 15-17 presidential election.

Not long before his death, Navalny urged supporters to flock to the polls at noon on 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 asked him about risks for Navalny’s team. “The key risk is that we will all be killed,” Meduza quoted Volkov as saying.

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Associated Press writer Vanessa Gera contributed from Warsaw.

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