Russian officials were convinced opposition leader Alexey Navalny wouldn’t come back. They’d warned he’d be jailed on arrival and steadily ratcheted up threats of new probes, amid allegations ranging from stealing supporters’ donations to working for U.S. intelligence. Even fellow Kremlin critics told the 44-year-old activist it was too dangerous to return from Berlin, where he’d been recovering from a nerve-agent attack he and Western capitals blamed on President Vladimir Putin.
But Navalny, convinced he could only remain a political force from inside the country, ignored their advice. His dramatic return has thrown the Kremlin on the defensive. The tension is unwelcome in a year that was supposed to be about sealing control in elections this fall as Russia recovered from the pandemic after Putin laid the groundwork to extend his rule as far as 2036.
“Navalny’s plan is very simple — to become Putin’s No. 1 headache and with his courage inspire political activism,” said Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a political consultant close to the Kremlin critic. “If he had decided not to come back, it would have been a victory for Putin.”
Backers say that strategy can work even if Navalny is jailed for years, which they expect. The Russian leader’s main opponent is betting that he can bring enough supporters into the streets this year to show they won’t be intimidated. At the same time, he’s counting on a West newly energized by the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden to raise the pressure on the Kremlin from outside.
The Kremlin is now resolved to keep Navalny in prison for several years or more, breaking with its past practice of giving him jail sentences of not more than a few weeks at a time, according to two people close to the leadership, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that aren’t public. He could get as much as 3.5 years at a hearing scheduled for Feb. 2, with another case in the works that could add 10 more.
These people said the harder line comes from the Kremlin’s view that Navalny is working on behalf of Western governments — a charge he denies. At the same time, the continuing protests in Belarus despite Russian-backed strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal efforts to suppress them have raised fears about public protests, they said. Authorities hope that Navalny’s highly personalized movement will lose direction once he’s in prison.
So far, that hasn’t happened. A new video he and his team released on YouTube Tuesday, exposing a grandiose Black Sea palace they alleged belongs to Putin, had over 40 million views in the first two days, a record for his group. The Kremlin calls the film’s claims untrue.
“They provoked a completely unnecessary crisis with serious domestic and international consequences,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who worked for the presidential administration in the early 2000s. “The Kremlin is now playing on Navalny’s turf.”
The activist and his allies hope that his case will catalyze the public discontent that’s been simmering amid a 4% decline in real incomes and coronavirus lockdowns, driving Putin’s ratings to record lows at one point last year. They’re targeting parliamentary elections in September as a chance to send a signal of the breadth of popular unhappiness.
A Levada Center poll last fall found 20% of Russians said they approved of Navalny’s work, despite uniformly negative coverage of him in state media. Half said they disapproved.
There won’t be quick steps, but the erosion of the regime will definitely accelerate,” said Krasheninnikov. “This stress situation will force Putin and his circle to make mistakes.” Of course, Kremlin critics have for years predicted the looming collapse of Putin’s support only to be disappointed. Polls show backing for him remains strong.
An early test for opponents comes Saturday, when Navalny’s allies plan rallies in dozens of cities. Authorities have already warned they wouldn’t grant permits and detained at least one organizer, moving at the same time to block websites promoting the events.
While confrontation with Navalny carries risks of stoking popular anger at Putin’s continued rule, it also holds the potential prize of breaking the Kremlin’s most persistent opposition movement. The last major challenge — which led to Putin’s 2003 imprisonment of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky over Western protests — signaled his rejection of any defiance of his power.
“In Russia now it’s more effective to fight the regime from prison than from exile,” said Khodorkovsky, who was forced to leave Russia in 2013 after his prison term. His case is a cautionary one: he, too, returned from abroad knowing he’d be jailed but underestimated the Kremlin’s resolve. “I thought I’d get 3-4 years at most, but it turned out to be 10.”
The Kremlin has pushed through legal changes to add new penalties for critics, as well as possibly block foreign social media that have been key organizing tools. Navalny’s supporters so far haven’t shown the fortitude of activists in Belarus, who’ve continued to protest for months despite beatings and arrests. Western criticism has been limited to rhetoric. Europe’s top diplomat is going ahead with a visit to Moscow next month — the first of its kind in four years — despite calls from some capitals to shelve it. Still, German Chancellor Angela Merkel Thursday renewed calls for Navalny’s immediate release, suggesting his case is back at the top of the agenda in many Western capitals. Her comments triggered a modest slide in the ruble as investors worried new sanctions could be on the horizon, Rabobank said.
“It is extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man,” Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state told senators this week. “I think that speaks volumes, and Mr. Navalny is a voice, I think, for millions and millions of Russians and their voice needs to be heard.”