Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
Alexey Navalny’s return to Russia was brave to the point of foolhardiness. The opposition leader was pretty sure that he would be arrested on trumped-up charges, and knew he was putting himself in the life of the hands of the Russian state that tried to poison him only months ago.
The charge against him, of breaking parole by failing to report to a police station – while recovering from that poisoning attempt – wouldn’t be out of place in a Soviet joke book. The message he released, indicating that he has no plans to commit suicide while in jail, was an altogether more grim chronicle of an accident foretold.
In Navalny, the Putin system faces an opponent endowed with the recklessness of ambition. By returning after the state had tried to kill him, Navalny has elevated himself into Putin’s main rival, preparing for single combat against the ruler.
He has thus shown a cynical society that he’s willing to take personal risk. The difficulty for Putin is that his position depends on projecting strength and inevitability. The reason Navalny was barred from running in the last presidential elections was not that he would have won, but that he could have done well enough to make Putin seem beatable – ushering in instability, as even men within the system jostled to suceed the President.
But having failed to kill Navalny, Putin now risks looking incompetent. And while it wouldn’t be difficult to have something to happen to Navalny in prison, it would leave Putin looking weak – a scared dictator who can’t face his opponents, or even admit that the vast palace on the Black Sea is his own.
To Navalny’s personal standing, his Anti-Corruption Foundation organisation must be added. On January 23, it showed it could bring hundreds of thousands out on the streets, all across the country: in minus 50 degree temperatures in Siberia, and third-tier cities such as Ufa and Perm.
This movement cannot be dismissed as reflecting the well-heeled residents of St Petersburg and Moscow – it is composed of the ordinary Russians that Putin himself claims to defend. Perhaps even more importantly, even Russia doesn’t possess enough well-trained riot police to put down simultaneous demonstrations across the country without risking undue bloodshed. It was excess brutality, after all, that drew Ukrainians back out onto the streets after the original Maidan protests had died down.
Navalny’s friends, however, have now to prove that his organisation can maintain its creativity without him (several senior associates of his were also arrested on the 23rd). He has drawn Russians in with skilful media performances and slick reports of anti-corruption investigations – the latest of which exposes Putin’s kitsch Black Sea palace, complete with dancing pole. The upcoming Duma (parliamentary) elections will be a test of whether Navalny’s tactical voting campaign, which worked well in the Moscow City Council elections, can continue with him behind bars.
Navany’s courage has given Putin another headache: getting rid of him risks creating a martyr; keeping him in prison gives a human form to his anticorruption campaign – and releasing him would allow him to continue his opposition.
This choice comes on top of a year in which Putin has found himself outsmarted by Turkey in Libya, spooked by the uprising in Belarus, and losing his biggest ally from the presidency of the United States. The Nordstream pipeline is under increasing pressure, and disinformation campaigns no longer have the advantage of surprise.
The prominence of Russians in the UK — both opponents of the regime and its beneficiaries — means that the UK can play an outside role in making Putin’s headache worse. The 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Launding Act gives ministers powers to apply Magnitsky-style personalised sanctions against figures affiliated with Russian security forces who benefit from the regime’s theft of Russian natural resources.
A good place to start would be the list of regime-affiliated figures published by Navalny’s organisation. The anti-money laundering powers should be deployed systematically against bankers, lawyers and estate agents who have facilitated them.
People working for Russian security forces including the National Guard, could be denied visas, and Sputnik and Russia Today’s broadcasting licenses should be reviewed. Ordinary Russians, by contrast, should be welcomed, by giving them generous rights to work after studying, for example. In Tsarist times, Britain became a place of refuge for dissidents and democrats. This is an area where it can lead the world again.