Alexei Navalny, 44, has spent a quarter of his life really bugging the Kremlin. At times, he has done more than that: in 2011, Navalny gave a one-liner to a radio station as thousands of Muscovites protested rigged parliamentary elections, describing Putin’s United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves”--the phrase has remained a rallying cry for the diminished anti-Putin minority in Russia. Navalny was later the runner up in a 2013 mayoral election that the Putin-allied candidate felt he needed to rig in order to maintain his power. Navalny announced his candidacy in the 2018 presidential elections, only to be banned from participating through yet more chicanery.
This summer, Navalny was poisoned by Russian government agents with a nerve agent inserted into his tea, international media investigations concluded, in an attempt on his life similar to those against defected Russian spies and Putin’s political rivals. After narrowly escaping to Germany and making a full recovery, Navalny decided last weekend to return to Russia, where he was immediately arrested on trumped-up charges and faces a pre-trial detention period. It’s safe to say that Navalny will be a thorn in Putin’s side for a while longer.
Since his arrest, Navalny’s supporters in Russia have erupted in protest. Saturday’s rallies alone saw over 100,000 Russians attending protests in dozens of cities, according to local media estimates. More than 3,000 protesters were detained by police on the same day. Following his arrival in Russia, Navalny released a statement through Instagram indicating that he was healthy and had no intention of hurting himself, bringing the focus ever closer upon his treatment while incarcerated. Navalny, critics note, is being held at the same facility where anti-corruption investigator Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 at the hands of government officials.
But let’s step back for a moment. Navalny, of course, knew detention was probable, if not definite, when he boarded his flight back to Moscow. He remembered the multiple times that he himself had been detained sporadically across the previous decade, and the
The first necessary piece of context is that Putin is politically far removed from the strongest moments in his presidency. Russia remains in economic shambles following years-long collapse in the price of oil and economic turbulence due to coronavirus. Putin already faces some skepticism for his decision last year to amend the constitution to grant himself access to nearly two more decades in power. His last robustly successful political overture - the decision to annex the Crimean peninsula and occupy parts of eastern Ukraine - has been long since overtaken in Russian media by more pressing stories. Putin is by no means weak, but he lacks the free-flowing political capital that might let him simply ignore Navalny altogether.
Russia has seen its soft power reservoir drain since the summer too. Western leaders condemned the Kremlin’s behavior vis a vis Navalny as news of his poisoning was confirmed, bringing Russia-vs-West power dynamics back to the fore, at least momentarily. Some observers suggested it may have been politically significant that Navalny’s refuge for the duration of his recovery was Germany, a Putin-skeptic state normally, but one which currently mulls the benefits of building a second pipeline delivering Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea. (This week, the European Parliament officially called for the pipeline project to be halted).
Navalny himself seems to have boosted his image in the last several months. A blogger by origin, Navalny transitioned successfully to YouTube midway through the 2010s with person-on-the-street video interviews with politically disaffected Russians. Since the summer, his channel has exploded to upwards of 6 million subscribers. Navalny’s uploads are now high-budget investigative productions, and his most recent one, posted just last week, is a two hour-long expose of Putin’s alleged ownership of a palace overlooking the Black Sea, whose estimated $1.3 billion sticker price was footed by the Russian taxpayer. The video has over 90 million views. In December, Navalny achieved what is perhaps an even more incredible feat: just days after the aforementioned independent investigation published information about Navalny’s assailants from this summer, Navalny managed to lure an unsuspecting member of the same FSB team into a recorded phone call where he confesses the attempt on Navalny’s life.
All this is to say that Navalny clearly senses at least a temporary advantage against Putin, and hopes to press it.
Putin’s perennial fear, according to experts like Michael McFaul, Daniel Treisman, and John Mearsheimer, is the destabilization of the Russian state apparatus that Putin shepherded out of the turbulent ‘90s. Putin remembers well the destabilizing effects of anti-corruption movements in neighboring post-Soviet states in the early 2000s, as well as the independence movements in the Baltic states leading up to the fall of the USSR itself. These days, Belarus remains in a volatile state, after weeks of mass anti-government protests swept the country in late summer. Armenia and Azerbaijan, to Russia’s south, have only recently wrapped up a bloody and power-shifting conflict. With this political agitation, Navalny may sense an opportunity to play a longer game.
Navalny likely hopes to take advantage of peripheral instability to center the political dialogue in Russia around the Kremlin’s corruption and abuses of democracy. Perhaps he sees the Russian parliament’s upcoming summer elections as an opportunity for mass mobilization: what he hopes will be a wave of anti-corruption protests rivaling the 1991 gatherings that brought the USSR to its knees.
Delivering himself directly into Putin’s custody accomplishes one large goal for Navalny: it makes Navalny Putin’s problem, far more directly than before. Were Navalny to remain in Germany for the remainder of the winter, and then perhaps return to Russia in the spring to organize for the upcoming elections, Putin would not need to make a decision about how to handle the Navalny situation, because the latter remained out of his reach. Meanwhile, Navalny would lose some credibility by merely attempting to rally supporters from outside the country. By returning to the country, however, Navalny forces Putin’s hand - by arresting him, Putin elevates Navalny’s profile and risks creating a living martyr. But by letting him walk the streets of Moscow freely, Putin would be unable to control Navalny’s movements, contacts, and communications with his supporters. Putin would not be in control, and his only option to intervene would be another arrest or attempted assassination, with even flimsier political justification. Navalny’s return serves as a complication, an invitation for the Kremlin to make a mistake; a way to destabilize Putin’s fragile order through its own heavy-handed administrative response.
At the same time, of course, Navalny receives some physical protection from the sheer scope of his earned media coverage. Navalny’s name-recognition and approval within Russia have never been higher, according to the lone independent polling agency in Russia. Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s National Security Adviser, tweeted for Navalny’s release on January 17th, Reports emerged on Tuesday that Biden’s first phone call with Putin included a conversation about Navalny.
For now, Navalny’s plan is to leverage his cachet into survival. The coming months may see him leverage his survival into mass political upheaval.
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