Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw (@WorldAffairsPro) is a global affairs analyst and host of the podcast “Global Impact.” He is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
With Alexei Navalny back in Russia five months after surviving a poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok, his courageous return presented Russian President Vladimir Putin – who Navalny believes ordered his killing – with two choices: allow the high-profile activist to continue to be a thorn in his side or lock him up in the hopes that he fades into obscurity.
We learned Sunday that Putin chose the second option. And the question now is whether Navalny’s anti-corruption movement can survive with its incredibly telegenic and social media savvy leader isolated from the frontlines – especially with factors like pandemic restrictions limiting public gatherings stacked against them.
We were also reminded, if we even needed it, of Putin’s disdain for any form of dissent, his reflex to reach for the most barbaric tactics to silence voices of opposition. These certainly are not the hallmarks of a leader who seeks a place in history among the great statesmen of the world.
Unfortunately for Navalny, his brave gamble in going back to take on someone as ruthless as Putin appears to have been a miscalculation. The Russian leader can remain in office for years, cares little about the international opprobrium for his treatment of Navalny and no doubt expects little retaliation from a United States pre-occupied with the turmoil of Donald Trump’s departure. That makes it unlikely to mean – at least in the short term – that Navalny’s supporters can make a heroic return to the protest barricades.
Indeed, during a hastily arranged hearing on Monday at the Moscow police station where he is being held, Navalny was ordered to remain in custody for 30 days. In what can best be described as a sham trial, a judge was brought in, defense lawyers were not informed until the last minute and only pro-Kremlin journalists were allowed to attend.
The prospects for the 44-year-old politician – expected to be jailed for at least 3.5 years— do not look at all favorable.
Shortly before his arrest, he told journalists at Moscow’s airport he was not afraid because “I know that I will leave and go home because I’m right and all the criminal cases against me are fabricated.” Navalny probably wanted to end his stay abroad in order to avoid the risk of becoming irrelevant or being seen as a foreign-backed agent. Likely he had an eye on two things: the situation of Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to go into exile in Lithuania last August and remains outside of her country, and the fact that Russians – as I am told by many contacts in the country – rarely have sympathy for politicians who flee abroad (even though his departure from Russia last year was forced by his needing medical treatment after the poisoning attempt, which almost killed him).
Putin, who typically refuses to acknowledge Navalny by name and has said that if Russian special services had wanted to kill Navalny they would have “finished it,” probably wanted nothing more than to see the anti-corruption activist absent at least until later this year, after elections for the lower house of Parliament are held and where the ruling, pro-Putin United Russia party is hoping to be handed a loyal majority in the next State Duma. “This is the main political event of the year and the main reason to ensure his (Navalny’s) absence,” Russian political scientist and Chatham House Associate Fellow Ekaterina Schulmann told me Sunday.
At the time of his poisoning, Navalny, who refers to United Russia as the party “of crooks and thieves” was promoting a “Smart Voting” strategy that encourages voters to cast tactical ballots for any opposition candidates considered likely to unseat a ruling party member in regional and federal elections. The tactic was used effectively in Moscow last year. That, coupled with an ability to reach millions of supporters via social media and in a way which Putin and his cronies are unable to compete, presented a formidable challenge that the Kremlin could not ignore.
Navalny’s return home also comes at a time the Kremlin and its security services are likely still seething: Late last year, an investigation by CNN-Bellingcat revealed the complicity of Kremlin agents in the poisoning, with Navalny duping a Russian agent tailing him into discussing details of the poisoning.
To further complicate matters for Navalny and his movement, harsh Covid-19 restrictions in Russia make it difficult for large protests to take place. That, coupled with an economic downturn, essentially silenced Russia’s protest movement throughout 2020.
The pandemic situation in Russia is one of Putin’s top problems at the moment. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, Russia, with more than 3.5 million cases, has the fifth highest caseload in the world. (Though Russia’s official reporting figures, especially on deaths, is said to be wildly inaccurate).
A series of other economic headaches are hitting hard: plummeting global oil prices, the disruption to the completion of Russia’s $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project and punishing sanctions imposed after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and invaded eastern Ukraine shortly afterward. An unpopular attempt in 2018 to raise the pension age infuriated many Russians and caused the ruling party’s popularity to plummet.
Putin may have wanted to sideline Navalny at a time when incoming US President Joe Biden is distracted by crises like Covid-19, domestic violence and the foreign policy fires lit by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Taiwan, Cuba, Sudan) in his final days in office.
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Russia is certainly on Biden’s agenda, with his incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan already signaling a more activist approach, calling the attacks on Navalny “not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard.”
But the new administration needs to play a more activist role. Biden needs to take this opportunity to forge a unified alliance among world leaders to confront Putin and renew pressure on him to lay off opposition leaders such as Navalny and Tikhanovskaya.
And to do it before Putin takes any more outrageous steps against those who speak out in opposition to him.