In the year since the arrest of Vladimir Putin's last opponent a new Cold War has begun. In the absence of internal enemies, Russia's increasingly powerful yet isolated ruler must turn to external targets.
One year ago this week, on Jan. 17, 2021, Vladimir Putin effectively disposed of his last viable domestic opponent when Alexei Navalny was detained at the Sheremetyevo airport north of Moscow.
Putin had long struggled with how to handle the firebrand anti-corruption lawyer and politician — and finally decided to eliminate him. Months before, in fact, Navalny was poisoned with the deadly biological weapon Novichok but miraculously survived. The surveillance and attempted murder were carried out by Russia’s FSB state security operatives, one of whom confessed to Navalny himself in a phone conversation.
After receiving treatment in Germany, Navalny decided to return to Russia knowing that he risked being locked away for years. The demonstrations that followed his arrest were violently dispersed, with demonstrators detained by the dozens and taken to detention centers.
Over the course of the past year, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia, while the headquarters themselves were recognized as extremist structures and their activities banned on the territory of the Russian Federation. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."
Foreign agents and extremists
In an interview this week conducted with TIME by letters, the 45-year-old Navalny wrote from his prison east of Moscow that the West was “falling into Putin’s elementary traps” of trying to prevent an invasion of Ukraine through negotiations, urging Washington and its allies to instead ignore the Russian president's security demands.
“Putin surprised me with the amount of damage he is willing to do to his country, to its future, just to solve one political problem, even an important one. Russia in the fall of 2020 was a different country than it is now, with a very different political regime. Even then it was a fully fledged authoritarian state, but few could have imagined such massive and total barring of candidates from elections, declaring all independent journalists "foreign agents" and thousands of people extremists.”
Who knows if Putin will read the interview. His mind is clearly elsewhere these days, apparently devoting his attention exclusively to foreign affairs, with the amassing of Russian troops on the Ukraine border and relations with the West at an all-time low.
Absolute power knows no fear and recognizes no limits.
But inside and outside the walls of the Kremlin, everything is rarely as it seems.
Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives, the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward: in November, it was 32%, the lowest result since 2014.
At the same time, the economic situation is getting worse, including the risks of rising inflation, which at the end of 2021, was already at 8.4%, the highest since 2015. The population is getting poorer, and the gap between the super rich and all other Russians is growing sharply. Meanwhile, Putin was busy signing a new law in April to change the Constitution to allow him to run two more times and stay in power until 2036.
Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia.
Fuelling the machine
An aging leader with no successors, no enemies, and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion.
His charismatic leadership is built on his commanding a nuclear power and acting as heir to the Russian tsars, which entails intimidating neighboring countries and deploying a chest-thumping international policy. In just one year of no enemies inside Russia, Putin has effectively returned us to the days of the Cold War with all its military and diplomatic maneuvers. Absolute power knows no fear and recognizes no limits. And Putin’s dealing with his domestic rivals with such cold-bloodedness is also an unspoken message to his foreign adversaries.
Backing down is not an option.
Not only U.S. and European leaders but all the neighbors of the Russian Federation are gradually being drawn into the conflict. International commercial projects such as Nord Stream-2 are being frozen, new sanctions are being prepared, and armies are ready for deployment.
Formally, Ukraine (and Georgia) are to blame in the Kremlin’s eyes, as they want to join NATO in order to protect themselves. Russia views this as aggression, even though Russia's other neighbors — Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Norway, and Black Sea neighbors Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece — are members of the alliance.
Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade. At home, backing down is not an option. We’ll see what happens at the border.