Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former bodyguard and chief of the National Guard has challenged opposition leader Alexei Navalny to a duel.
Viktor Zolotov recorded an emotional seven-minute speech, posted on the National Guard’s YouTube channel, attacking Mr Navalny for his investigation into large-scale corruption at the National Guard.
Mr Zolotov said he was challenging Mr Navalny to a duel, and made a promise to “make a good, juicy beefsteak” out of the president’s most prominent foe.
He admitted “shortcomings in terms of corruption” but rejected Mr Navalny’s claim that he personally profited from the shady deals.
The speech is a departure from the usual Kremlin policy to avoid even mentioning Mr Navalny’s name in public.
Over the years Mr Putin has ignored Mr Navalny’s investigations and protest rallies, refusing to even call him by his name.
Russia’s most popular opposition leader is serving a 30-day jail sentence for organising an unsanctioned public protest.
Last month he published an investigation alleging that at least £22 million had been stolen in procurement contracts for the National Guard.
Mr Navalny rose to prominence thanks to his investigations uncovering official corruption and has spearheaded mass anti-government protests across Russia, rattling the Kremlin.
Rallies took place on Sunday in all of Russia’s 11 time zones, and the National Guard’s riot police violently cracked down on the protests in some cities.
Mr Zolotov, 64, who rarely makes public appearances, took to YouTube to vent his frustration. He said he was insulted by Mr Navalny’s allegation and felt compelled “as an officer” to challenge him to a duel.
“I’m simply challenging you to a fight, to a ring, to a tatami, anywhere where I promise I will make a good juicy beefsteak of you,” Mr Zolotov said, seated at the desk and shaking his fist.
He served in Mr Putin’s security detail for 13 years and is believed to be one of the president’s closest allies.
Mr Navalny has run into trouble with Russian law enforcement as his prominence has grown. He was convicted on two separate sets of charges and his family members and allies have faced criminal prosecution.
The Kremlin on Tuesday dismissed suggestions that it encouraged Mr Zolotov to make his statement.
Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Mr Zolotov did not run his speech by the president and that the Kremlin does not view it as a physical threat to Mr Navalny.
Mr Peskov called Mr Navalny’s investigation “shameless lies” and supported Mr Zolotov’s outburst, saying: “Sometimes you need to fight shameless libel with all possible means.”
While most of Mr Navalny’s allies treated Mr Zolotov’s statement as a joke, others saw chilling overtures in the former bodyguard’s emotional appeal.
“Zolotov’s public threats against Navalny should be taken without any irony,” said Ilya Yashin, an opposition activist and close friend of murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
He referred to Mr Zolotov’s close ties to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whom the opposition considers to be behind Mr Nemtsov’s 2015 murder: “Because of the Nemtsov case we know how the Chechen bandits react when their friends feel offended.”