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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Yes, Navalny Still Matters — But Putin's Opposition Can't Fix Russia Now

Two years ago, Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic Alexei Navalny was jailed. Much has and hasn't changed since then, but Putin's invasion of Ukraine means that Russia has put itself on a course of no return.

photo of a guard in a moscow court as Alexei Navalny appears by video link

In May, a video link of Alexei Navalny from Pokrov's Penal Colony No 2 as the Moscow City Court for an appeal hearing on his case.

Sergei Karpukhin/TASS via ZUMA
Cameron Manley

-Analysis-

It was exactly two years ago, when leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was finally in good enough health to fly home from Germany to Moscow. But he knew the risks.

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“Russia is my home,” he said before leaving. “I want to go back and try to change it.”

Landing on the tarmac, five months after he was nearly assassinated by a nerve agent, he embraced his wife. They walked to passport control, followed by hordes of eager journalists.

The border guard carefully scrutinized Navalny’s passport, looking at his face, at his passport — again, his face, his passport. He called over his superiors, who did the same. “You need to come with us,” they told him.

His lawyer protested, exclaiming that she should be allowed to accompany him. But in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, then as now, there is no use in protesting.


He shared a final kiss with his wife, and was led off alone by black-clad border guards.

A miserable Motherland

This scene on Jan. 17, 2021, viewed by millions around the world, was a chilling sign of Vladimir Putin’s ruling iron fist.

But it also, somehow, feels like another time. It was well before Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine, taking the Russian president’s hunger for ever greater power and control — as well as his fear of it being stripped away — to a whole new level.

Alexei Navalny was eventually sentenced to nine years in a maximum security penal colony after being found guilty of large-scale fraud and contempt by a Russian court.

I’m not going to surrender my country, and I believe that the darkness will eventually fade away.

Navalny has been continually active on Twitter throughout his incarceration and Tuesday (the two-year anniversary of his arrest) was no different. Horrified by Russia's war in Ukraine, he wrote: “Our miserable, exhausted Motherland needs to be saved. It has been pillaged, wounded, dragged into an aggressive war, and turned into a prison run by the most unscrupulous and deceitful scoundrels.”

“Any opposition to this gang — even if only symbolic in my current limited capacity — is important”

No surrender

“There are plenty of us, certainly more than all the corrupt judges, lying propagandists, and Kremlin crooks. I’m not going to surrender my country to them, and I believe that the darkness will eventually fade away. But as long as it persists, I will do all I can, try to do what is right, and urge everyone not to abandon hope Russia will be happy!”

Navalny’s ceaseless drive to inspire hope despite his desperate circumstances is quite remarkable. It is mirrored by the work produced on his YouTube channel run by his team scattered around Europe. Working tirelessly, they attempt to expose how senior figures in Putin’s inner circle are profiting greatly from the war. The videos have garnered millions of views.

Last year’s CNN documentary “Navalny” directed by Daniel Roher also played a key role in giving the Russian opposition movement more international reach as well as publicizing the glaring corruption at the heart of the Putin regime.

When Roher asks Navalny “what’s your message to the Russian people if you are killed?” Navalny sits silently. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Don’t give up. Don’t be inactive.”

Alexei Navalny has come to stand for Russia’s final hope of change from within. But it is slim hope indeed.

St Petersburg, January 2023. Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the breaking of the Siege of Leningrad.

Alexander Demianchuk / TASS via ZUMA Press

Other Putin opponents jailed

Navalny’s own conditions are hardly promising. After narrowly surviving a hunger strike in the first months of his arrest, he was tortured by prison guards and just last week was reportedly refused medical care. It is indeed hard to imagine right now what a positive outcome for him personally — and, by extension, for Russia — could even look like.

Since the start of the war, many of Navalny’s fellow opposition figures have been jailed in similar cases. Lilia Chanysheva, once head of Navalny’s headquarters in Ufa, is awaiting trial and faces up to 18 years in prison. Ilya Yashin, an opposition politician previously head of the municipal assembly in Moscow, was arrested and sentenced to eight and half years in prison for speaking out about the massacre by the Russian military in Bucha. Andrei Pivovarov, political activist and Executive Director of Open Russia, was sentenced to four years in prison for leading an "undesirable" organization.

In early December, Tumso Abdurakhmanov, an opposition blogger from Chechnya, was killed in Sweden. He was considered the main critic of Putin ally, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

Some figures who managed to flee Russia, such as Lyubov Sobol and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, have continued their work in exile in Europe. In March, shortly after the invasion, these opposition figures came together in a surprising display of unity, calling on Russians to resist Kremlin propaganda and push back against the war on Ukraine.

A hard question for Russians

Since then, however, the various personalities and factions of the Russian opposition have lacked that same cohesiveness that it would take to bring down a regime as ruthless as Vladimir Putin’s.

Interviewed by Ukrainian media site Focus, political scientist Mykola Davidyuk spoke pessimistically about Russian opposition figures: "A very short time has passed since they fell apart. And this speaks of their weakness, their powerlessness to do something.”

Perhaps Navalny’s exclamation in the conclusion to his anniversary post (that “Russia will be happy!”) misses the mark.

Two years on from his arrest, and nearly a year since the invasion of Ukraine, there are questions about Russia that extend beyond Putin. Indeed, the question is not whether Russia will one day be happy, but the price it will be required to pay to get there.

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