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Western focus on Navalny risks missing the bigger picture

Article by Alex Folkes

January 25, 2021

Western focus on Navalny risks missing the bigger picture

Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia after his poisoning and subsequent jailing has elevated him in the eyes of the Western powers and he has become the number one topic for Russia watchers. This past weekend we have seen demonstrations that are huge by Russian standards across the country. But there is a significant risk that his treatment, albeit egregious, will detract attention from many other issues of concern and may therefore play into the hands of the Kremlin’s rulers.


That forces of the Russian state poisoned Alexey Navalny is not in dispute by anyone except the Russians themselves. The Kafka-esque way in which he has been treated since he returned – jailed on charges of breaching his parole because he left the country to be treated for the poisoning whilst in a coma – is a clear attempt by the Kremlin to keep him out of the limelight.


The siloviki – the Russian state security chiefs – have always believed that if you deny an opponent the oxygen of publicity then that is enough. Their first choice would have been for Navalny to stay overseas where he could be ignored by state media. The label of ‘puppet of the West’ that has been given to him by those in charge could then have had more staying power with their primary domestic audience. And like Boris Berezovsky and Andrey Borodin before him, Navalny could speak to the western media all he wanted whilst having little traction in his home country. Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya may have bucked the trend somewhat in continuing to have influence, but she has a different status having contested and likely won the Presidential election there. Even in her case, her influence is waning. Navalny has been excluded from any ballot since the 2013 Moscow mayoralty poll and so does not have the same credibility to act as a ‘leader in exile’.


The decision to return to Russia fits with Navalny’s personality. Like Tikhanovskaya, he isn’t a pro-Western politician, although he clearly has more sympathy for western mores than the current President. Many European leaders have been reluctant to get too close to him because of his past statements, which aligned strongly with Russian nationalism. Western allies in Georgia and Ukraine will be the first to say that my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend. More recently, however, he has transformed himself into an anti-corruption activist and shed many of the views which accord less well with western sensibilities.


Having returned to Russia, the Kremlin is seeking to marginalise Navalny. His initial 30-day detention will certainly be upgraded to a full prison sentence and he will be shuffled off to some remote penal colony. Navalny and his supporters have campaigning opportunities even without their figurehead – the release of the video of Putin’s palace was cleverly timed. The protests will have come as a shock to authorities because they were spread so widely across the country. The question is whether they can be repeated on a regular basis. No one except Navalny himself appears to have the charisma to lead the movement, and it is clear the authorities will continue to arrest alternative leaders and harass the foot soldiers into silence. Many may find themselves forced into internal exile.[1]


Navalny does not need to be on a ballot paper to have influence. In the 2018 presidential election, he was banned from standing and so his teams attempted to run a boycott campaign, but this was met by police raids on their headquarters and frequent arrests. As is common in post-Soviet Russian elections, shadow candidates were put forward to draw the attention and commitment of the those inclined to campaign against the existing regime. TV personality Ksenia Sobchak was chosen as a candidate. Despite her being the daughter of Putin’s St Petersburg mentor, she succeeded in drawing away many young activists who might otherwise have been part of the Navalny campaign. She mentioned a number of liberal causes in her messaging that guaranteed she would be considered real by those who backed her, but also that she would gather few votes in conservative Russia. And the police played their part by harassing her supporters just enough to persuade them that they were really fighting the system.


Such tactics might be a bit more difficult to carry off in the Duma elections scheduled for later this year. Navalny has modified his campaigning so that he is no longer advocating a boycott, but instead he runs a so-called ‘smart voting campaign’ for whichever candidate is most likely to defeat the Kremlin’s United Russia party. They have had successes in regional polls in 2019 and 2020 thanks to the historically unpopular state of United Russia, commanding the support of fewer than one in three voters according to independent polls. Smart voting has clearly worried the Kremlin enough that it has created sufficient new parties, which back the President so that they can pick and choose which to endorse at the last minute. This cat and mouse strategy would confuse the voters if we believed that what the voters thought or voted for actually made much of a difference.


In the absence of their leader, the smart voting campaign will continue, but may be a bit less successful. Meanwhile, as Alexander Baunov of Carnegie Moscow Center notes, Navalny has been elevated to the rank of the number one political prisoner in the world.[2] The West’s attention is fixated on a single opposition figure and the heat, relatively, is off a number of other topics. There may be the threat of further sanctions, but it is difficult to imagine who might be in line given the policy of seeking to sanction those most responsible for a particular event. In this case, Russian authorities will point to the due process of the courts and say that Navalny is a criminal who is serving a sentence properly conferred, no matter that the ECHR has ruled the offences for which Navalny has been jailed to be an abuse of process. The Russian state has, and will continue, to deny absolutely that its forces had anything to do with the poisoning. Bellingcat and Navalny himself have proved that to be a fiction, but it is unlikely that the siloviki will be hugely bothered if they are added to a sanctions list.


Once the Duma elections are out of the way, it is entirely possible that President Putin will seek a reset with the West, at least a marginal one. Despite the Navalny poisoning, President Biden wishes to go ahead with a full five-year renewal of the New START treaty. This is a quick win for the new leader and one to which Putin will readily agree, having offered such to Trump. There are any number of other options open to Biden and his opposite number will hope he takes them. But the current attention on Navalny may be a major stumbling block. However, if the West gets fixated only on one issue – albeit an egregious one – then longer-term concerns such as Ukraine, the South Caucasus and Georgia may be forgotten. After the New START treaty is extended, it is in the area of arms control that further rapprochement might be most likely.


It may be that President Putin was preparing to use Navalny’s imprisonment as a bargaining chip to secure relaxation of some of the sanctions, which are having a real impact on Russia’s struggling economy. In the light of the protests, this may no longer seem to be such a wise move and he will want to see what impact the state media labelling of Navalny as a foreign agent under the control of the CIA has on his opponent’s popularity before putting him forward as a bargaining chip. But it would not be wise for the US to think that securing Navalny’s release is the beginning of the end of Putin.


The Kremlin craves attention and for Russia to be treated with the deference they feel they deserve as a superpower. With Russia and the US the only countries holding enough nuclear firepower to destroy the world, any nuclear deal has to focus on those nations first and foremost. Other states, even China, can only sit on the sidelines if they appear at all. Any arms deal therefore necessitates giving Putin the all-star treatment and may allow for some limited agreements in other areas too. That is not to suggest that the West should roll over, as President Trump often seemed to wish, nor give away the shop over Crimea in an attempt to appease. A deal on nuclear weapons or anything else has to be the right one on its own merits. But by recognising the Russian leader as a key figure, it might just lessen some of the attention seeking interference that has been at the forefront of Russian foreign policy in recent years. That means recognising Navalny, his poisoning and imprisonment as a key issue but not the only one in US-Russian relations.


Image by Michał Siergiejevicz under (CC).


[1] Navalny Allies, Jailed, Fined as Russia Vows Protest Crackdown, The Moscow Times, January 2021,; Marc Bennetts, Putin opponent Ruslan Shaveddinov tells court of life exiled on Arctic base, The Times, July 2020,


[2] Alexander Baunov, Putin, Poison, and Self-Inflicted Wounds: Navalny’s Return to Russia, Carnegie Moscow Center, January 2021,

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