Top Navalny aide Leonid Volkov recovering after hammer attack in Lithuania

Leonid Volkov was injured in an attack in Lithuania on Tuesday.

March 13, 2024, 12:54 PM

Leonid Volkov, a former top aide to the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, is recovering after he was attacked with a hammer by an assailant on Tuesday night near his home in Lithuania, in an assault he blamed on the Kremlin.

Volkov, who was Navalny's longtime chief of staff, said he was attacked as he arrived in the yard of his home in Vilnius. In a video message on his Telegram channel, Volkov said the attacker struck him around 15 times with the hammer, and that it left him struggling to walk and with a broken arm. Photos shared by his colleagues showed Volkov with a bloodied leg and a bruised face.

"It's painful to walk, but they say there's no break. Though my arm is broken," Volkov said in the video, wearing a sling on his right arm. "Oh well, I'll live. The main thing is to work and we will not surrender," he said.

PHOTO: Police officers patrol near the house of Leonid Volkov, a close associate of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, March 13, 2024.
Police officers patrol near the house of Leonid Volkov, a close associate of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Wednesday, March 13, 2024.
Mindaugas Kulbis/AP

Volkov accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the attack. "This is obviously a typical, characteristically gangster-ish hello from Putin," he said. "Hello to you too, Vladimir Vladimirovich," he added, using Putin's middle name.

Lithuanian authorities also swiftly blamed Putin's regime, with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda saying the attack was pre-planned.

"I can only say one thing to Putin -- nobody is afraid of you here," Nausėda said.

Lithuanian police said they were investigating the attack and that the country's elite anti-terrorism unit was assisting.

Lithuania's State Security Department counterintelligence agency said the assault was probably carried out to stop the Russian opposition from influencing Russia's presidential election this weekend, Reuters reported.

The Kremlin views Navalny's team as "the most dangerous opposition force capable of exerting real influence on Russia's internal processes", the Lithuanian security agency said, according to Reuters.

Volkov has lived in Lithuania's capital for the past few years, in exile from Russia where he would face arrest for political activities. Long one of Navalny's closest lieutenants, he has vowed to continue his struggle against Putin's regime since Navalny's death last month.

Volkov and Navalny's team have called for Russians to take part in a guerrilla protest around the elections, urging people to gather quietly at polling stations at midday Sunday and to vote for any candidate other than Putin or spoil their ballots.

In an interview with ABC News last week, before the attack, Volkov had said he and the rest of Navalny's former team were determined to keep going despite the dangers.

"The personal risks for everyone and the leadership of our movement are, of course, very high," he said in the interview. "We are well aware of these personal risks, but it's our choice to keep going."

Navalny died in an Arctic prison colony in February after being held in Russian jails since 2021. Navalny's team and family have accused the Kremlin of murdering the opposition leader. His widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has vowed to step into her husband's role, pursuing peaceful ways to undermine Putin's grip on Russia and leading the movement he built. While Navalny was in prison, his colleagues continued to release highly produced videos exposing alleged corruption within Putin's circle and lobbying for sanctions targeting his associates.

"We have no choice but to continue," Volkov told ABC News. "[Navalny] was like a never-give-up person. If we would stop now, it would be like a betrayal of his legacy."

Volkov said the thousands of people who attended Navalny's funeral, chanting slogans against Putin and the war in Ukraine, gave him hope. The funeral was the largest display of public dissent in Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, amid a crackdown that has seen virtually all leading opposition figures jailed or forced into exile, almost all protest outlawed and independent media shut down.

The election this weekend is expected to grant Putin a fifth term, keeping him in power for another six years. No serious challengers are on the ballot, and anti-war candidates have been barred from running.

Volkov said that given the dangers of public protest in Russia now, the opposition's strategy needs to be to create opportunities for those who oppose Putin and the war to see each other. The protest called for on election day was part of that strategy, he said.

"We don't expect that those votes will be counted. They will not. But people will come together, they'll see each other. And they'll have this feeling that they actually exist. They're actually not the marginal minority as the propaganda pretends they are," he said.