Putin’s Other Front: Navalny’s Death and the Opposition’s Death Row

  • Vladimir Putin has significantly ramped up his crackdown on opposition figures, exemplified by the arrest and death of Alexei Navalny.
  • The death of Alexei Navalny has created a substantial void in the Russian opposition, further weakening the already fragmented and repressed anti-Putin movements.
  • There are risks of increased authoritarianism and further repression as the regime reacts to opposition efforts.

Why is fighting opposition so important for Putin right now?

At the age of 47, Alexei Navalny became the latest victim of Vladimir Putin’s systematic repression of Russian opposition. On February 16, 2024, the remote “Polar Wolf” prison in the Yamalo-Nenets region of Russia announced his sudden death. President Putin has intensified his crackdown on opposition forces through numerous high-publicity arrests such as Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin in 2022. Apart from public figures, thousands of protesters have been arrested for anti-war protests in recent years. As the Putin administration continues its incursion in Ukraine, discontent has grown, increasing the government’s need to maintain their power. 

Navalny posed a significant threat to Putin’s authority as a principled opponent of the so-called ‘special military operation’, the invasion of Ukraine. Despite the tendency of respondents in Russia to avoid surveys due to fear of state persecution, half of those surveyed expressed a desire for peace and an end to the war as their main wishes for 2024. Dissatisfaction is peaking due to the waves of mobilisation and low conditions on the frontlines, such as lack of ammunition and so-called ‘meat-grinder’ tactics. 

Given the circumstances, Putin needs to ramp up control over opposition voices. As a consequence, Alexei Navalny—the last standing major opposition figure—died, leaving a void in the fight against Putin. The official cause of death was reported to be from natural causes, specifically “sudden-death syndrome,” a term used to describe various cardiac complications. However, allegations surrounding his death persist by human rights organisations and family members.

In the State Duma, the opposition is primarily represented by quasi-opposition forces. For example, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the largest opposition party, tends to be lenient regarding oligarchic rule in Russia and has supported Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, the second-largest opposition party, a Just Russia – For Truth, remains sympathetic towards Putin. Legal opposition is essentially under Putin’s control, with critical parties or organisations being outlawed or declared foreign agents. Consequently, Putin is maintaining a tight grip on the country’s political system as dissatisfaction rises.

Why has the opposition thinned in recent years?

Vladimir Putin became the president of the Russian Federation under unlikely circumstances. In the 1999 legislative elections, the Communist Party secured the most seats in the State Duma. In response, Russian oligarchs – fearing a return to communism and loss of wealth — united to push their candidate Vladimir Putin to victory in the 2000 presidential elections. His rise to power, from head of the Federal Security Service to acting President and eventually President Elect took everyone by surprise. He was a mysterious figure whose political affiliations were unknown. 

His sudden ascent can be attributed to his loyalty to former President Boris Yeltsin and to the important connections he made throughout his career, from the Mayor’s office in Saint-Petersburg to the Federal Security Service in Moscow.

Putin, more than anyone, understands that controlling the opposition is key to maintaining power in Russia. This has been his rulebook since he became president. The rivalry between the State Duma and the President posed such significant risks during Boris Yeltsin’s tenure that it culminated in the Constitutional Crisis of 1993, where the parties  even resorted to military action against each other. When Putin took over, he ensured that the State Duma, regardless of party membership, remained loyal to him. Throughout his long tenure, the state under his rule has become increasingly repressive; government-opposition lines simply do not exist anymore. 

In a similar turn of events to Alexei Navalny’s death, another prominent opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov, died under suspicious circumstances in 2015. He was murdered near Red Square and the Kremlin by unknown individuals. Boris Nemtsov was a powerful political figure with widely acclaimed liberal beliefs. His outspoken criticism of corruption and abuse of power inside Putin’s circle brought him national attention. 

At the time of his murder, Nemstov was publishing an investigative report that would expose Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine in 2014. Before Navalny, Boris Nemtsov was the single most influential figure for the Russian opposition, making him a target for Putin. 

Between 2011-2013 Russia saw mass public protests involving most opposition forces, primarily caused by the rise of authoritarianism and Putin’s intention to run for president again in 2012. In 2014, another wave of protests followed the annexation of Crimea. Following the suppression of protests and the arrest of political prisoners, the wave died out; it was only reignited by the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. However, by that time, Putin’s administration had become more sophisticated in its repression mechanisms, resulting in hundreds of arrests.

After the arrests of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Ilya Yashin, and the exile of Mikhail Kasyanov, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and hundreds more, the Russian opposition appears weaker than ever. Putin has effectively managed to suppress every attempt at consolidating opposition against him. The democratic backslide that took place throughout Putin’s tenure has reached its peak with the death of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s victory in the 2024 presidential election.

Alexei Navalny – the most dangerous man in Putin’s Russia

Born in Moscow Oblast in 1976, Navalny considered himself half-Russian and half-Ukrainian. His career began in Moscow as a member of the social-liberal party Yabloko in 2000. The party suffered a crushing defeat in the 2003 election, but Navalny’s Moscow campaign secured 10% of the vote. Despite his membership, Navalny never liked the party and started his own independent political career. 

He gained popularity in the the 2000s, when he conceived the idea of purchasing small amounts of shares in large, corrupt, and wealthy companies such as Rosneft, VTB, and Gazprom. He then demanded disclosure of information as a minority shareholder to tackle corruption, initiating lengthy legal battles with Russian oligarchs and the political system. Although most of these endeavours were defeated in court, they brought fame and a righteous reputation to Navalny among the Russian middle class.

Simultaneously, his political views became more evident regarding controversial issues. In 2006, he was named as one of the organisers of the Russian March, an openly xenophobic annual gathering by a variety of political and social groups, ranging from conservatives to neo-Nazis. The march has no limitations, and groups use Nazi symbolism and Hitler salutes. Navalny stated that he supports the idea of such a march under the principle of freedom of assembly, and attended it for several years, but was absent in later years.

Fighting corruption and exposing state-sponsored fraud became Navalny’s signature tactic against the Russian government. Establishing the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011 during the Russian legislative election, and his brief detention during a protest for which he served 15 days with Boris Nemtsov, marked Navalny’s transition to a political leader as before he was more seen as an online activist.

Perhaps his most successful political campaign was the 2013 mayoral election in Moscow when he battled against Kremlin-backed Sergei Sobyanin, who to this day serves as the Mayor of Moscow. Navalny caught the attention of Western media and ran what was called a ‘Western-style’ campaign. He raised unprecedented donations and relied purely on voluntary street activities. 

An election campaign like this is rare in Russian politics. For Putin, a political opponent perceived as a likeable figure in the West poses a threat. Putin actively reinforces the narrative that the West does not understand Russian politics to counter claims of his abuse of power and criticism.  

In response to foreign attention, Navalny was ignored by major TV channels and was denied the opportunity to have a live debate against Sobyanin. Under such pressure, Navalny’s campaign was described as a miracle. Officially, he ended up in 2nd place with 27%, with Sobyanin receiving 51%, albeit with suspicions of foul play

In more recent years, Alexei Navalny became famous for his short documentaries on corruption within the Russian state on YouTube.  By 2020, Navalny’s fame was skyrocketing; his YouTube channel amassed millions of views. The videos gave detailed overviews of corrupt practices by the Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, ex-President and Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and provided a detailed investigation of the alleged Putin’s palace at Black Sea riviera. By then, Navalny had called out the military, political and economic elite of Russia, ranging from Yevgeny Prigozhin to Viktor Zolotov.

After making more than enough enemies through his anti-corruption videos, Alexei Navalny boarded a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. During the flight, he fell ill, and was hospitalised after an emergency landing. Fearing for his life, Navalny’s team, despite opposition from local doctors and authorities, took a plane sent by Berlin’s Charite hospital and transported him there. The reasoning behind this was clear: Navalny in a Russian hospital could be easily targeted again. Eventually, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that he was poisoned by Novichok. The Kremlin brushed off accusations and called it “empty noise.”

What does the future look like for the Russian opposition?

After recovering for months, Navalny returned to Russia on the 17th of January, 2021 where he was immediately arrested for breaching probation rules, as he was not allowed to leave the country. Navalny was additionally sentenced to 19 years with extremism charges. After his death was announced, it took several days to return the body to his family. Alexei Navalny’s death leaves a power vacuum in the Russian opposition. He was a likeable figure for both Russian liberals, with his pro-Western anti-war stances, and for nationalists, with his vocal nationalist and imperialist views, some of them being openly racist

What the future looks like for the Russian opposition is blurry. Yulia Navalnaya, the politician’s widow, is likely to become a new central figure for Navalny’s supporters. She delivered a powerful speech at the Munich Security Conference the same day Navalny’s death was announced and later addressed the European Parliament. Yulia Navalnaya vowed to continue the fight Alexei started. 

So far, she has met with important Western politicians, including President Biden. Intimidation tactics employed by Putin’s regime are not new to her; she has been unsuccessfully blackmailed by pro-Kremlin news agencies before. Her transformation into a figure similar to Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya seems realistic as the political situation in Belarus and Russia are somewhat similar. 

There are several other potential figures who could replace Navalny. Boris Nadezhdin, a banned presidential candidate, may rally opposition support, as Navalny endorsed his bid. His public statement on a state-run TV channel has amassed millions of views, in which he declared that defeating Ukraine seems impossible and that the Russian government should immediately start peace talks. Given the current situation in the Russian political sphere, a statement like Nadezhdin’s requires bravery. He attempted to run in the 2024 presidential election but was rejected by the election commission. Whether he can actually pose a threat to Putin’s rule is uncertain, but the Kremlin is ensuring there is no candidate the opposition can rally behind. 

Yekaterina Duntsova, an anti-war candidate, was denied candidacy in a similar turn of events to Nadezhdin. She was even briefly detained for a drug test in January 2024. The process of hindering her political career and intimidation from the government seems evident in this situation. The Kremlin likely perceives Duntsova and Nadezhdin as weak figures since the full range of repressive mechanisms, as seen in the cases of Navalny and Nemtsov, has not yet been employed. However, as they gain more popularity, it should be assumed they will face greater threats.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a billionaire and former prisoner of the Putin government, now in exile and labelled as a foreign agent, remains critical of Putin from abroad. Lately, he has been calling for a new type of revolution: a revolution of elites. However, changing power in Russia the way Khodorkovsky believes might be a mission that requires general support, not just that of the elites. Khodorkovsky was one of the leading figures in mass privatisation in early 1990s Russia and an advisor to Boris Yeltsin, and by 2003, he was the richest man in Russia. An opponent within the oligarchal establishment is considered less appealing than one coming from within Russian popular society. 

It is Vladimir Kara-Murza who can be deemed as the most serious and influential figure in the current Russian opposition.  Recognized as a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International, he won the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for his columns written from his jail cell. He has been involved in most of the protests in recent Russian history and was part of the Russian Opposition Coordination Council. Apart from being vocal of Putin’s “system of murderers,” his academic and journalistic works on autocracy and dissident movements are just as valuable as his activism.

His analysis of Putin’s actions provides detailed investigations into systemic repression. For example, in his op-ed with the Wall Street Journal, Kara-Murza highlights the so-called ‘Olympic truce’ during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when Putin temporarily turned a blind eye to opposition protests, only to resume repressive measures with unmatched brutality once the games concluded. For speaking out against the invasion of Ukraine, Kara-Murza currently serves a 25-year prison term. 

All of these candidates are somewhat liberal and politically centrist, though Putin’s government does not face criticism from only one political affiliation. The arrest of far-right figure Igor Girkin raises concern within Russian nationalists as well, especially among the military. High military casualties and weak supply lines on the frontlines led to the Wagner revolt in June 2023. Girkin’s criticism resonates within Russia’s military society, yet fears persist of a fate similar to Prigozhin’s.

Most recent protests in Russia are either linked to anti-war activism or support of Alexei Navalny; now both of those movements are repressed and face challenges daily. Yet, public discontent with the war in Ukraine will likely increase as more and more families are directly affected by the recruitment of young and older family members. The most recent mobilisation wave was reported in March 2024, amassing 300,000 recruits. 

Despite the lack of opposition leaders, whether they are silenced or not, further extension and slow advancement of war in Ukraine are against Putin’s odds. With tensions inside the government, Putin is losing allies, despite winning elections.