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How Navalny Fell Short

By attacking Russia’s elite, he has alienated the allies he would need to challenge Putin.

In late January, it appeared as though momentum was on Alexey Navalny’s side. The longtime Kremlin critic had just made a dramatic return home after spending five months in Germany recovering from what he claims was an attempted poisoning by Russian security services. He had released a blockbuster video investigation purporting to uncover a secret seaside palace belonging to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Although a lengthy jail sentence was imminent for him, Navalny could be comforted by the fact that his arrest had galvanized mass protests across Russia. 

But two months later, the tide had clearly turned. The protest movement has died down and many of Navalny’s closest associates have been arrested. Navalny himself was sentenced to two years and eight months in a penal colony on February 2, effectively removing him from the political scene until after Russia’s parliamentary elections later this fall. Although the sentence provoked outcry in the West, the reaction to it in Russia was far more subdued. 

Navalny’s allies have recently begun pushing for a new round of protests and reports of Navalny’s worsening health in prison have once again put him in the headlines. But they will face an uphill battle. The Russia of 2021 is not the Russia of 1991 or 1917. Although living standards in Russia have stagnated in recent years, most Russians are not yet prepared to support revolution, instead preferring reforms within the existing system. No less significantly, unlike the late tsarist or Soviet governments, Russia’s current leadership still maintains the loyalty of political elites, especially the country’s vast security services apparatus. 

Over the past decade, Navalny has emerged as one of Russia’s most prominent opposition figures. The 44-year-old lawyer is best known for his video investigations into alleged corruption by senior Russian officials, which have attracted hundreds of millions of views on Youtube. He also ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013 and played an important role in organizing mass anti-government protests in 2011–12 and 2017–18. 

Navalny’s primary base of support is young, middle-class professionals in major cities. Although Navalny has made an effort to broaden his appeal in recent years, many Russians still regard him with suspicion. A February poll from the Levada Center, the country’s leading independent pollster, found that only 19 percent of Russians approved of Navalny’s work, while 56 percent disapproved. The share of Russians willing to support Navalny for president is even smaller, just 2 percent. 

In August, Navalny was aboard a flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he had been meeting with local activists. Not long after takeoff, he began to feel extremely ill. Navalny went to the lavatory and did not reemerge. When flight attendants went to check on him, they found that he had collapsed and was barely conscious. 

The plane made an emergency landing in the nearby city of Omsk, where Navalny was rushed to a local hospital. Two days later, a private plane arranged by a German NGO flew him to Berlin, where he spent the following month in intensive care at the city’s prestigious Charité hospital. 

Navalny’s associates immediately accused the Kremlin of foul play. Later, German military doctors said that Navalny’s skin, blood, and urine samples showed traces of Novichok, a Soviet era military-grade nerve agent. The findings were subsequently confirmed by laboratories in France and Sweden. 

In December, British investigative group Bellingcat published a report concluding that an elite subunit from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) had been following Navalny for years. Shortly thereafter, Navalny uploaded the audio recording of what he said was a phone call between him and one of the FSB operatives shadowing him. During the 49 minute call, in which Navalny posed as a senior security official, the man appeared to inadvertently confess to poisoning Navalny. 

The Russian government has adamantly denied allegations that it tried to poison Navalny, while not disputing that FSB agents had tailed him. At his end-of-the-year press conference, Putin accused Navalny of being propped up by U.S. intelligence and joked that if the FSB had really wanted to assassinate him, “they would have probably finished the job.”

On January 17, Navalny returned to Russia after five months recovering in Germany. As he walked towards passport control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, surrounded by journalists and video cameras, he was detained by border patrol and taken to a prison outside of Moscow. Video of Navalny’s dramatic arrest went viral almost instantly. 

Russia’s Federal Prison Service said they arrested Navalny because he violated the probation terms of a 2014 suspended sentence for fraud. Navalny insists that he is innocent and claims that the charges against him are politically motivated. Russian prosecutors have also accused Navalny of slandering a 95-year-old World War II veteran who appeared in a video urging Russians to vote in last summer’s constitutional referendum, which handed Putin the legal right to remain in power beyond the end of his fourth term in 2024. Navalny had called participants in the video “traitors” and “corrupt lackeys.”

With international attention on Navalny, the very next day after his arrest, members of his team published a video investigation claiming to show a secret $1.35 billion palace on the Black Sea coast belonging to Putin. In the span of several days, the video attracted 60 million views. The Kremlin denied that the lavish residence was Putin’s. Shortly thereafter, Russian businessman and longtime Putin friend Arkady Rotenburg declared that the property belonged to him and said he planned on turning it into a luxury hotel.

On the same day that investigation was released, Navalny also issued an appeal for his supporters to take to the streets in a video shot from a courtroom outside of Moscow, where he was being detained. 

On January 23, tens of thousands of Russians answered his call, rallying in more than 100 cities across the country, stretching from St. Petersburg in the west to Vladivostok in the east. Protestors came out even in parts of Siberia where temperatures hovered around minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Navalny’s supporters claimed success, and subsequent demonstrations took place on January 31 and February 2. 

But the Kremlin showed no intention of backing down. Riot police forcibly dispersed protestors in many cities. In Moscow, protest organizers were forced to change their rallying point five times after the local authorities shut down several metro stations in the city center. According to independent monitor OVD-Info, more than 11,000 people were arrested over the course of two weeks, including many of Navalny’s closest associates. 

Eventually Navalny’s team was forced to beat a retreat. On February 5, Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff who is currently based in Lithuania, announced that protests would be discontinued until spring. He warned that further mass arrests risked “paralyzing” Navalny’s activist network ahead of the parliamentary elections. “If we go out every week, thousands more will be detained, and hundreds more beaten,” Volkov said during a livestream on Youtube. 

David Saveliev, a journalist and University of Oxford researcher specializing in post-Soviet protest movements, argued that while the government’s crackdown undoubtedly played a major role in the protests’ demise, the more fundamental problem was that Navanly lacked the popular support necessary to challenge the Kremlin. 

“It’s possible to mount an organized peaceful resistance to well-armed security forces, but you need a cross-class and cross-cleavage coalition,” he said. “You need to have enough people willing to go out into the streets.”

Saveliev noted that only a fairly small percentage of Russians turned out for the pro-Navalny protests, something he attributed to the movement’s lack of a bigger political objective. “Navalny’s people did not have a coherent message beyond ‘Free Navalny’ and ‘Russia without Putin,’” he said. “Those are fun slogans, but they are not a tangible political program.”

Further complicating matters for Navalny’s team is the fact that few Russians are in a revolutionary mood. Although Russia has experienced economic hardships in recent years, Russians have by and large adapted to them, explained Denis Volkov, deputy director at the Levada Center. “No one is ready for radical political changes,” he said. “Instead, most people want to see certain economic improvements such as higher wages and lower prices.”

A skeptical public is not the only obstacle for Navalny. Alexey Chesnakov, a political analyst who previously served as a Kremlin aide, noted that all successful revolutions in Russia enjoyed the support of at least some part of the existing elite, who helped shift the balance of power by throwing its weight behind a political insurgent. But Chesnakov argued that Navalny’s attacks on the elite had caused its members to regard him as a “threat” and further consolidate around Putin. 

“Navalny is doing everything he can to alienate the people who control the bulk of the media, political, and financial resources,” he said. “You cannot become President of Russia if you quarrel with all of its stakeholders.” 

Dimitri A. Simes is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies and writes for the Financial Times, the National Interest, and Nikkei Asia.

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