Navalny vs Putin: what next?

Tens of thousands took to the streets across Russia on January 23 to protest against the arrest of Alexei Navalny and to demonstrate their growing frustration with the Putin regime. Russian authorities had detained Navalny days earlier upon his return from Germany, where he had been receiving medical treatment following an August 2020 assassination attempt that has since been linked to the Kremlin.

The comparatively large size and nationwide scale of the recent protests surprised many observers and appears to have unnerved the Russian authorities. Police detained over three thousand protesters and bystanders on January 23, while there has since been a wave of arrests targeting leading opposition figures.

This heavy-handed approach reflects the Kremlin’s deep-seated fears over a popular uprising. Putin and many of his inner circle remain haunted by the memory of pro-democracy protests in the late 1980s that brought down the Soviet Empire in Central Europe and sparked the 1991 Soviet collapse. Since Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, they have been obsessed with the threat of a similar uprising inside Russia itself.

Current circumstances appear to be particularly unfavorable for Putin. Russia has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has imposed further pain on an economy already stagnating under the burden of international sanctions. The July 2020 constitutional conjuring trick that extended Putin’s reign until 2036 has also fuelled the mood of simmering discontent and left many Russians desperate for change. Meanwhile, ongoing pro-democracy protests in neighboring Belarus have provided the Russian opposition with an unlikely but potent source of inspiration.

Despite this discouraging environment, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Since taking power in 2000, Putin has seen off numerous protest movements. He has amassed vast financial reserves to keep his regime afloat in difficult times, and has built up a formidable security apparatus specifically designed to suppress grassroots protests and popular uprisings.

The stage appears to be set for a period of heightened tensions in Russia marked by mass protests and equally large-scale arrests. The Atlantic Council invited a range of experts to share their views on the implications of Russia’s January 23 protests. What can we expect from the escalating confrontation between Vladimir Putin and Alexei Navalny?

Alexander Vershbow, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council: The January 23 pro-Navalny, anti-Putin protests in over 100 cities across Russia were the largest in years, despite brutal police tactics and sub-zero temperatures. They indicate that growing numbers of Russian citizens of all ages are becoming disillusioned by life under the Putin regime and are tired of its corruption, indifference to public welfare, economic stagnation, and lack of accountability. Russians also appear to be increasingly unafraid of confronting the authorities. The harsh police response suggests Putin is worried that the contagion of color revolutions could spread to Russia, as it did to Belarus, unless the protests are suppressed decisively. 

At this stage, the protests do not represent a threat to the regime, and it is unclear whether Navalny supporters will succeed in prolonging them, as occurred in Belarus and in Khabarovsk last year. Russian leaders will need to assess whether an intensified crackdown and a long prison sentence for Navalny will give impetus to even larger protests, or whether intimidation will succeed in pacifying the situation.  

Putin may attempt to deescalate by giving his nemesis a short prison sentence and taking token steps against corruption, while disavowing any connection to “Putin’s Palace.” But he is unlikely to allow Navalny to go free and resume his political activities, especially with parliamentary elections on the horizon in September that could be disrupted by Navalny’s “smart voting” tactics. 

It is doubtful that many Russians will be convinced by Moscow’s efforts to blame the West for the protests. The accusations of complicity on the part of the US Embassy, which were based on a warning for American citizens in Moscow to avoid the protest venues for their own security, are laughable.  

Nevertheless, the US and its allies need to tread carefully. They should reject claims of Western interference; urge an end to violence against peaceful protesters; call for Navalny’s prompt release; and warn that sanctions will be imposed on individuals in the security services directly responsible for the violence and for the attempted poisoning of Navalny. Harsher sanctions options should be kept in reserve to deter an even more sweeping crackdown. 

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Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy: Even before the botched assassination of Navalny in August 2020, Putin’s popularity had nose-dived because of the Russian economy’s stagnation and his ineffective response to the pandemic. Then came the uprising in Belarus and the parallel protests in the Russian Far East, each showing a groundswell of popular opposition to blatant corruption and unaccountable autocratic government. Bellingcat’s exposure, using open-source digital data, that Navalny had been followed for years by FSB agents, was another embarrassment to the regime, as was Navalny’s dramatic return and the solidarity protests that have followed. Navalny’s video exposing the Putin regime’s systemic corruption, which received almost 100 million views in the week after its release, is the culmination of this perfect storm for the Russian dictator.

When Putin took power over two decades ago, he posed as a confident, rising strongman. But now he’s been totally outclassed by Navalny and his team of young investigative reporters and local organizers.  With Trump’s exit and the inauguration of Joe Biden, who has promised to issue a presidential direction making fighting corruption “a core national security interest,” Putin’s problems could mount. A starting point for Biden’s new policy should be sanctioning some of Putin’s kleptocratic crony oligarchs and freezing, or even seizing, their stolen assets that are in Western banks. Nothing the US could do would be more popular with the Russian people.

Daniel Fried, Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council: A repressive regime’s obsession with an individual dissident suggests weakness and decay. The nationwide protests over Navalny’s arrest do not mean that the Putinist system is about to fall. But they do suggest that Putinism is on the defensive, responding to events and challenges from Russian society and unable to do more than arrest, repress, and defend its actions using risible arguments retreaded from the Soviet era.

Putinism’s initial appeal in Russia was real. This popularity was the product of early economic growth, political stability, and Putin’s own ability to reflect the Russian desire for national consolidation after the trauma of the Soviet collapse. But, like the Soviet system, Putinism hit a wall: its kleptocratic structure unable to generate sustained economic growth and its aggression abroad limiting foreign sources of capital and technology that could, in part, compensate.

Navalny’s attack on Putinism focuses on the inherent unpopularity of a corrupt ruling circle building palaces for itself. His personal courage in returning to Russia to face arrest and perhaps assassination contrasts with Putin’s strange macho personality cult. Russia is back in a period of stagnation, similar to that which characterized the final years of Brezhnev’s rule. Navalny represents a challenge that will build over time.

Anders Åslund, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council: Since the protests around Putin’s return to the presidency in 2011-12, Alexei Navalny has stood out as the main politician in Russia besides Putin, and he has proven to have great political skills. Navalny has wisely focused on corruption and launched sophisticated research efforts, combining his findings with well-produced YouTube content. Two shortcomings of the 2011-12 protests were that they were concentrated in Moscow and among the upper middle class. This enabled Putin to dismiss them as unrepresentative. Navalny has reoriented the protests to the whole country and to the youth.

Last year, Putin allegedly tried to have Navalny murdered by the FSB. The Kremlin appears to have believed that Navalny would stay abroad afterwards, but he returned with a great fanfare, and Putin seems to have been lost, finding no better alternative than to arrest him. Then, Navalny delivered the ultimate blow to Putin by publicizing his kleptocracy, his palace, his mistresses, and his enriched illegitimate children. Putin was caught in a web of lies.

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief campaigner, assessed that the Navalny protests on January 23 gathered 300,000 protesters in 150 cities. Afterwards, Putin felt the need to deny his palace on Russian state television, looking more lost than ever. Putin likes to slow things down, but Navalny knows this and speeds events up instead. Putin has recovered many times before and knows how to keep his calm, but this is nevertheless shaping up to be the most serious crisis of his reign. He has good reasons to be scared.

Daria Kaleniuk, Executive Director, Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center: Thanks to Alexei Navalny, tens of millions of Russians have now seen the secret palace of the country’s uncrowned emperor. Understandably, they feel defrauded and robbed by the corrupt Kremlin regime. The wave of protests across Russia on January 23 also reflects growing demands for justice and a democratic future. We in Ukraine strongly back this cause. It is extremely hard to fight for truth in an autocratic regime that uses violence to oppress people and employs the mainstream media to spread lies and promote chauvinistic feelings among the population. Nevertheless, the moment is fast approaching when Russians finally understand the true cost of corruption. They will come to appreciate that in order to protect his enormous ill-gotten wealth, Vladimir Putin has waged expensive and illegal wars against countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which would otherwise have preferred friendly relations with the Russian people.

I fully support the Russian opposition’s calls for the West to impose personal asset freezes against Putin’s inner circle. This would be the best way for the EU, US, UK, and Switzerland to show their support for a democratic Russia. I believe we will live to see a time when everyone in Russia is able to visit Putin’s palace, which will serve as a reminder of the absurd corruption that flourished prior to the advent of democracy in Russia.

Vladislav Inozemtsev, Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies: The protests in Russia that erupted after the recent arrest of Alexei Navalny attracted broad domestic and international attention. Some analysts have even suggested they may mark “the beginning of the end” for the Putin regime.

Navalny has expertly exploited the widespread mood of disillusionment among the Russian public with his investigations into Putin’s riches. However, he will soon receive an inevitable jail sentence of at least 2.5 years for violating the probation terms of his 2014 fraud conviction. Meanwhile, the authorities will increase pressure on dissenters, leading to a decline in protest activity.

The 2021 protests resemble a similar movement in 2017 sparked by an earlier Navalny investigation. The protests in 2017 peaked between March and June of that year but eventually faded away. These days, the average Russian is preoccupied with daily business and has limited exposure to political issues. I believe Navalny was mistaken in his belief that he could ignite a countrywide protest movement by surrendering to the Russian authorities. Contrary to the famous phrase “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear,” the demise of the Putin regime is actually much farther away than it may currently seem to some.

Anton Barbashin, Editorial Director, Riddle Russia magazine: Russia’s January 23 protests have highlighted the growing popularity of Alexei Navalny among Russians younger than 25. He is already at least as popular among this demographic as President Putin. Moreover, young Russians are much more inclined to believe Navalny was poisoned by the state (34% among 18-24 year olds versus 9% in groups aged over 55). This trend of youth dissatisfaction with the regime is bound to increase. The authorities have proven unable to communicate effectively with the TikTok generation.

The future development of the current protest movement will depend on the state’s response and on the highly likely incarceration of Navalny. With only repressive measures at hand, the Russian authorities risk antagonizing larger groups of the population who might not necessarily be pro-Navalny, but who object to the social and economic policies of recent years.

We can expect further political turbulence this year due to upcoming Duma elections, which will see the United Russia party attempting to gain a majority in highly unfavorable conditions. This will likely mean widespread electoral fraud. Given Navalny’s Smart Voting strategy, Russia’s 2021 parliamentary election might end up being the most challenging of Putin’s 21-year reign.

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: A street art portrait of incarcerated Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Navalny's recent arrest has sparked the largest wave of protests across Russia in recent years. (Vincenzo Livieri/IPA/ABACAPRESS.COM via REUTERS)