- + Domestic policy threat contrasted by a burgeoning foreign policy approach.
- + There is an incompatible nature between domestic politics and Putin’s plan for a greater ‘Russia superpower’ image.
- + Wave of domestic opposition, headed by Navalny, proves menacing to Putin as it uncovers his biggest weaknesses.
Why is Putin hostile towards Navalny?
Answer: The timing and context of Navalny’s return has the potential to be detrimental to Putin’s control on the domestic arena.
Alexei Navalny; 5 months after having survived a nearly lethal dose of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, is currently facing a 3-and-a-half year jail sentence after returning to his homeland. The swift arrest of Mr. Navalny took place moments after he landed in an airport near Moscow from Germany. Russian authorities claim that during his medical hiatus, Navalny violated the terms of his suspended criminal sentence by remaining in German soil for further treatment and must therefore fulfil a 30 day prison sentence at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina jail, awaiting further conviction by the Russian judiciary.
The exposed allegations of the now infamously banal FSB operation, which ultimately failed at ending Navalny’s life, have recently been confirmed. This uncovers the existence of a pernicious and conniving narrative in Putin’s handling of domestic dissidence which in Navalny’s case comes in the form of Russia’s only coherent opposition to the United Russia Party.
Why exactly has Putin doubled-down on domestic dissidence after a recent spurt of perceivably foreign policy victories? Throughout his tenure heading the Russian state, Vladimir Putin has deemed national security concerns as the key to his desired return of a Russian hegemony, with himself at the helm of course. Conflicts ranging in both the domestic and foreign realms of national security policy such as Chechnya, Georgia, and more contemporarily, Syria, have been pinnacles for Putin’s success in acquiring and exerting power.
Geopolitically, Putin has gained enough clout to allow himself to employ his version of Russo-neo-imperialism through his authoritarian machinations to the extent where he is being allowed to rule over the Russian presidency until 2036 without any significant backlash- until now. With Navalny however, Putin is facing a hostility which could prove detrimental to his ever-growing foreign policy aspirations.
What does Putin want?
Answer: Putin is looking to assertively uphold his projections of Russia as a holder of great power status. He wants to remain at the helm of Russain leadership at whatever cost.
To understand the motivations within his projection as a leader, one must comprehend the magnitude and nature of the project that he has been developing over his tenure in Moscow. From his ties in the early years of a free-market-economy being introduced in Russia, Putin developed a scale for his methods and proxies to develop a hierarchy inspired by nepotism and cronyism; with the underlying creation of a state within a state. The making of such a system goes beyond contemporary nepotism to the extent that it is described as neo-feudal.
Brushing over the general understanding of the structure of power within the Russian government leads us to the desires of Putin that can be recapitulated to strive for an even greater authoritarian grasp. A particular arena which serves as a tool to mount an offensive against domestic dissent whilst maintaining his particular version of the status quo is the malleable use of laws and regulations. Putin has proved loyal to his favoured tools as he had demonstrated last year with the announcement of a constitutional reform which would be the first in Russia since 1993.
More recent regulations, specifically targeted at Navalny, are undemocratic and authoritarian in premise. For example, in November, a draft law declared the designation of foreign agent organisations participating in elections, targeting his most prominent opposition (Navalny) and his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has hence been forced to close down. Recent surges in protests throughout Russian cities have alerted the Kremlin and primed their containment capacities with the purpose of making it harder for those protesting to do so.
Finally, after the leaked investigation by Navalny’s team and Bellingcat uncovered the trajectory of the FSB agents ordered to poison the opposition leader, the Kremlin introduced a draft legislation targeting the leaking of information on security and intelligence officers; signifying recognition on behalf of the Kremlin that the operation to eliminate Navalny was indeed an FSB operation.
Why is each man seemingly doubling down on his pursuit of the other? Putin, on one hand, has encountered a serious domestic threat to his tenure to which he will seemingly act by any means necessary; as evident by the FSB operation. Navalny, on the other hand, is similarly doubling down on his decade-long crusade where he has continuously staked that popular angst over corruption would reverse the support developed under chauvinist narratives and better living standards after the 1990s to the point that his opposition challenges the Kremlin narrative that Putin had returned Russia to a great power status.
What does Navalny want?
Answer: Navalny is looking to transcend his findings throughout the years in order to rid the state of its corrosive factions which would allow him to come to prominence in the political spectrum.
It is important to understand that by essentially turning himself in, Navalny is delivering himself to the mercy of his sworn enemy. This means that he is reliant on the eventuality of certain changes in the political and societal fabrics of the Russian territory. If Putin stays on as leader of the state for another 20 years, then it would be very unlikely to see Navalny free from his shackles anytime soon. So what is he doing in order to prevent Putin from staying in power? As mentioned before, Navalny has focused his efforts on the rallying of the Russian populace towards his cause which has developed his characteristically hostile relationship with Putin; as highlighted by recent developments.
As he remains in the custody of Russian authorities, Navalny relies on his communication channels in order to appeal to his supporters and lead the protests that have sprung in response to his incarceration and the overall grievances of those who protest. His messages have been straightforward, “They fear us, They fear you” and “Don’t be afraid, speak out!”
By portraying such a message, Navalny is counting on the acceleration of confrontation between the opposition and the Kremlin where the support of the people will become necessary in order to achieve any political gains or upholding the status quo. Navalny has therefore taken to the domestic fervour of his supporters by calling for them to resist in the name of the opposition. He is aware of the significance of popular support to both himself and Putin, hence he has used increased domestic tensions to his advantage by essentially sulking as public enemy number one.
What is Navalny doing?
Answer: He is re-asserting his call for societal upheaval by leading the current protests; and therefore the opposition, against government backlash.
Navalny has demonstrated a high degree of resilience by appearing unbothered after his recent trial and incarceration. Holding such a stance at a crucial point in his strife against Putin presents an air of confidence -not that the system will somehow unshackle him- but that the people will finally do so. Some might categorize said confidence as over-zealous yet Navalny has been able to continue leading the opposition’s discourse from abroad by relentlessly exposing Putin’s personal projects.
For example, the report published by Navalny’s team details the creation of Putin’s mega-palace. Although the Kremlin has already deemed the claims as absurd, Navalny claims victory as he theorizes the move will now mean that Putin won’t get to indulge in said palace because of its exposure to the public. Navalny has therefore unveiled the obsessive nature that Putin has over the control of his image.
Portrayal of his stature in the domestic and international arena have been integral factors to Putin’s success over the years. As he ultimately gained more and more political clout and a foothold on Russain society, so did he become more apt at maintaining secrecy. This is why Navalny has made it his intention to focus his offensive moves on Putin’s kryptonite: His image; clearly, to good effect. Further comparison of both leaders’ profiles reveals that Navalny possesses a more charismatic appeal to the public than Putin.
As a result, Navalny has also demonstrated effectiveness when heading protests and serving as a movement leader. This coupled by his return home under life-threatening circumstances has galvanized his followers who’d been yearning for a return of such features into Russia’s cynical political realm. Lastly, Navalny is highly appealing to the young transitioning generation of tech-savvy individuals whose support has been sought after by the Kremlin to apparently no avail and proves the ground that Navalny is indeed covering demographically.
Furthermore, as the prominent opposition leader in Russia, Navalny has dedicated his career to the purge of corruption from Russain political society. He believes that ridding the political arena from Putin’s party members will allow Russia to undergo a proper transition from its Soviet-era rooted institutionalization. Even from his cell in Matrosskaya tishina Jail, Navalny realizes the viability of doubling down on his quarrel with Putin. In particular, he has recently denounced stakeholders in Putin’s Russia who he believes must be sanctioned by the West in a call to impact the behavior (and image) of Russian authorities regardless of their resistance to international pressure.
Who is winning? What does this mean for you?
Answer: Putin has the definitive power of either allowing the opposition movement to grow by releasing Navalny or doubling-down on oppressing it. Either way, Navalny is seemingly winning the support of the Russian populace.
As mentioned before, Putin’s geopolitical stature has allowed him to withstand the wide array of threats that Western nations have allocated to the Russian state. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has demonstrated resilience towards both sanctions and appeals for further transparency on Russia’s internal affairs and specifically Navalny’s case. Such resilience will have to prove itself once again as the European Parliament is expected to pass a resolution RFE/RL calling for further sanctions on Russian representatives.
The same lawmakers are also considering to call for a pause in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline; which is already nearing completion. Navalny; with his involvement in the alleged exposure of the FSB in his own assassination attempt and his continued revelations about government corruption, disrupts major trigger points in Putin’s vision.
Lastly, a case such as Navalny’s, which has now gathered a significant amount of domestic and foreign scrutiny, will serve as a test of domestic Russian supremacy. Putin, through the Kremlin, customarily -especially in cases that jeopardize him- is known for influencing decisions throughout the judicial hierarchy regardless of popular outcry. Will this time be any different, or is Putin more reliant on popular support and is thus suffering from conformity?
The entire debacle will lead us to some turbulent socio-political developments inside the Russian state that have and will continue to result in protests throughout the territory. In order to understand what implication a surge in protests over a jailed opposition leader might usher, one can allude Navalny’s return from Germany to Russian soil to an almost identical return made by a certain Vladimir Lenin some 100 years before as it eventually led to the Russian revolution.
What Navalny represents for those millions of Russians disfavoured by the transitioning structures of the Soviet and post-Soviet era is a beacon of hope that cronyism and nepotism can be extrapolated from Russian politics. “I had stopped protesting for a long time, everything seemed pointless but something today just made me feel I had to come. Navalny was just the last drop.”
Moscow local Yulia Makhovskaya said during the recent protests after Navalny’s incarceration. The question now remains on whether or not the Kremlin will succumb to the force of Navalny’s movement or will double-down on his authoritarian narrative and sentence his opponent to further jail time. Developments might severely hinder the viability of the Russian status-quo and could even result in a regime change. If either result occurs, there will be significant changes to the composition of European geopolitics as one of the main players will undergo a period of socio-political restitution. If Putin wants to lead the Russian-state for the next 20 years, he will have to continue overcoming the increasingly abrasive roadblocks and hostile situation that Navalny poses.