It’s late March 2020. A young activist, Yegor Zhukov, faces Aleksei Navalny in the studio of the radio station Ekho Moskvy. He thanks Navalny for having inspired him to become an activist—just like he inspired so many others. But, today, Zhukov is in attack mode.
It is no wonder, he says, that rallies often don’t achieve their goals when they aren’t part of a larger plan of action. Protesting for two hours and then going home won’t worry the authorities. What needs to happen instead, Zhukov is convinced, is something more disruptive—peaceful, but forceful: blocking roads, for instance, or occupying official buildings.
Navalny’s answer is clear. According to the Constitution, people have the right to “assemble peacefully and unarmed”—and Navalny is ready to defend that right even when the authorities have not given their formal authorization. “I call for protest, and I don’t give a damn about what the Moscow mayor’s office has to say.” But this is about as radical as he gets.
This is not because Navalny is allergic to revolution in principle. In 2011, for instance, he thought “a confrontation between the corrupt elites and broad popular masses” that had just toppled regimes in the Middle East and North Africa as part of the Arab Spring might also happen in Russia—a hope he repeated in 2016. This makes him different from the old guard of Russian liberals, many of whom are principally opposed to any form of disorder.
But he is also different from the younger generation—people like Zhukov who sometimes endorse more radical measures. Pro-Kremlin media constantly accuse Navalny of wanting to bring a Ukrainian Maidan to Russia. In 2021, Putin himself likened pro-Navalny protests to the Bolshevik Revolution and its organizers to “terrorists.”
These accusations are what Navalny refers to when answering Zhukov. “I’m realistic,” he says. “I just know that, as soon as I start calling to block roads, everyone in all my offices across the country will be arrested immediately.” The goal is to maximize protest turnout—and to create stress for the regime. But within the limits of the Constitution.
We might not know whether Navalny secretly dreams of leading people to the barricades. But his words and actions suggest he doesn’t. Instead of a revolutionary, then, Navalny is better thought of as an uncompromising realist.
Is Putin afraid of Navalny?
Many of the questions asked about Navalny and his relationship with the Kremlin are, essentially, unanswerable. “Is Putin afraid of Navalny?” is one such question. Answering it definitively would require access to Putin’s inner thoughts—or, at least, to his closest confidants.
Facing these barriers, we have taken a different tack. Because what the Russian authorities say and what they do can often be at odds, we’ve looked at how the system has responded to particular incidents.
We might not know what Putin thinks of Navalny. But we can draw conclusions from the president’s dogged refusal to use Navalny’s name in public, his admission that Navalny was indeed being followed by security service personnel before falling ill in August 2020, and his insistence that Navalny is an agent of Western powers.
We might not know how troubled the authorities are by the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s investigations. But we can draw conclusions from the official orders to take down YouTube videos, the frequent law enforcement raids on the Foundation, and, finally, the destruction of the FBK itself.
We might not know how seriously the Kremlin takes Smart Voting [a tactical voting project coordinated by Navalny’s team, and aimed against United Russia, the dominant, pro-Kremlin party]. But we can draw conclusions from the reported set-up of a spoiler initiative called “Smart Vote” to confuse voters, the mass detention of municipal politicians in March 2021, and the full frontal attack on Navalny’s campaign offices across the country.
All of this suggests that, even if we don’t know Putin’s personal view, it is unquestionable that the Kremlin takes Navalny extremely seriously—that they see in him and his team’s activities a clear threat to the current political order. But the Kremlin also knows that Navalny is not its only problem.
Navalny has shown a knack for exploiting opportunities—for highlighting and mobilizing people around structural problems like elite corruption and inequality. By removing Navalny, the Kremlin may succeed in weakening the focus of discontent in Russian society. But the more profound reasons responsible for citizens’ grievances—stagnant wages, rising prices, venal officials—would remain.
Will the West save Navalny?
Even if the West wanted to, it wouldn’t be able to. Navalny’s fate will be decided in Russia.
That does not mean that Western governments are powerless. But they should be realistic about the capacity to influence decision-making in Russia—through sanctions or otherwise. That is particularly true regarding somebody like Navalny, who has already been portrayed as a puppet of the West. Some have even doubted that there is enough political will in the West to enact new sanctions. And Navalny has been among them:
“Nobody is going to solve our problems,” he has said. “Germany, the U.K., or the U.S. will never help us, or even think hard about how to save Russians from tyranny. We need to stop thinking about that, we need to stop hoping that foreign countries will help us. It’s bullshit, foreign countries care about themselves.”
Navalny and his team have, nonetheless, called for international sanctions to be placed on particular Russian individuals: “Go to YouTube, type ‘Alexei Navalny’ and take all the subjects of our [FBK] investigations,” Navalny said in October 2020. And, when Navalny was detained in January 2021, his close associate Vladimir Ashurkov called for Western governments to sanction several prominent businessmen and political figures, not just the “operatives” but the “people with the money.”
And this isn’t the first time Navalny has called for such measures. He approved when the United States proposed sanctions following the death of Sergei Magnitsky [a tax specialist working for investor Bill Browder]: “If this happens, it will be a massive blow [to the ruling elite] … How are they going to be able to go to their Miami condos?” Navalny wondered.
Overall, Navalny has been consistent in his attitude towards international sanctions. Yes to personal sanctions against corrupt officials. No to economic sanctions against Russia as a whole, which might hurt the Russian people more broadly.
One example of the latter was much discussed after Navalny’s August 2020 poisoning. Some argued that Germany should cancel the Nord Stream 2 project—a gas pipeline project running from Russia to Germany, across the Baltic Sea. This was Navalny’s response: “That’s Germany’s business. Decide for yourself! Sanctions against Russia as a whole will not help.” In fact, they might even “help to consolidate the regime.”
Do Navalny’s calls for personal sanctions amount to an appeal for foreign powers to “interfere in Russia’s internal affairs,” as Russian officials have argued? For Navalny, absolutely not. “You shouldn’t confuse Russia’s interests and the fear of officials for their corrupt savings in Western banks.” Sanctions against officials in the wake of Magnitsky’s death, he wrote, were “completely pro-Russian.” Navalny also pointed out how Western countries were, in fact, enabling Russian corruption: “Money laundering is a crime according to [Western] laws. Our crooks steal in Russia, and then launder in Europe; this can’t be ignored.” But Navalny hoped that, some day, “all those responsible would be punished in Russia,” without the need for international intervention.
Excerpted from Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? by Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, Ben Noble and published by C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. in the UK and Oxford University Press in the United States © Jan Matti Dollbaum, Morvan Lallouet, Ben Noble, 2021. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Footnotes have been removed to ease reading.
Jan Matti Dollbaum is a postdoctoral researcher at Bremen University, specializing in activism and civil society in Russia.
Morvan Lallouet is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kent, researching Navalny and the Russian opposition.
Ben Noble is Lecturer in Russian Politics at University College London and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.