What Navalny’s Death Means for Russia and the West
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The sudden death of Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure against Vladimir Putin’s government, marks yet another chilling moment in Russian politics. Navalny’s suspicious demise in an Arctic Russian prison has sparked international outrage and a flurry of condemnation, especially from Western leaders who have squarely blamed Putin for this event. The brazen nature of Navalny’s death, following several years of torture-like conditions in prison, signifies that Putin feels invincible right now. At the same time, his regime appears to survive only on fear and mass persecution. This has implications for how the West should approach Russia going forward.

Navalny’s death can be seen as evidence of Putin’s perceived invulnerability and the effectiveness of his authoritative grip on Russia. Despite facing Western sanctions, Putin’s regime has seemingly not only weathered the storm but also, in some aspects, thrived. The Russian economy in 2023 surpassed both the United States and Europe in terms of growth, expanding by 3.6% despite being subjected to a broad range of significant economic sanctions and isolation from major global markets. Russia’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine has continued unabated, with some advances in several Ukrainian cities and regions, bolstering Putin’s image among his domestic supporters and the Russian elite. Ukraine’s counter-offensive has failed due to the extensive defensive positions of the Russian army. The key city of Avdiivka has been taken under control by Russian forces amid concerns over munitions supplies for Ukrainian troops. This military success, coupled with the effective suppression of internal dissent, has further solidified Putin’s hold on power.

This apparent strength is a result of a much harsher political reality within Russia. The political landscape in the country has been systematically purged of any meaningful opposition. Key opposition figures are either deceased, incarcerated, or have been forced into exile. Even small acts of dissent, such as pickets to mark Navalny’s passing, are swiftly prevented by the authorities—an extreme level of control over public expression and a zero-tolerance policy towards opposition rule in Russia. Russian authorities are monitoring the internet space and arresting individuals who express criticism of the war in Ukraine, even in online forums. Not only are anti-war opposition members being detained, but also those who, like Igor Strelkov (also known as Igor Girkin), criticize the conduct of the war. Strelkov, a former FSB officer, prominent Russian nationalist, and pro-war blogger, was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of inciting extremism, which were linked to his criticism of Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine. This case highlights the broader trend of Russian authorities cracking down on any form of dissent, including from individuals who have been supportive of the war but critical of its execution.

This climate has created an atmosphere of fear among the general Russian populace. With the threat of imprisonment looming over any form of resistance, ordinary Russians are understandably hesitant to mobilize against the regime. The government’s heavy-handed approach has effectively stifled public discourse and protest, leaving little room for citizens to express discontent or call for change.

The control extends to the media landscape too. Independent voices and alternative narratives are virtually non-existent in the Russian media, which is dominated by government propaganda.

In this environment, Putin’s regime appears invulnerable and his grip on power is unshakeable. The combination of recent military successes in Ukraine, the suppression of political opposition, control over the media, and the instillation of fear in the populace has solidified his authoritarian rule.

However, Navalny’s passing also unveils the fragile nature of Putin’s regime, revealing an inherent insecurity within the Kremlin. The regime’s reliance on silencing opposition voices points to its vulnerability to any form of dissent. This strategy of maintaining power highlights the regime’s paradoxical – though common in dictatorships – nature: outwardly strong and unyielding, yet internally fearful of any challenge to its narrative.

The fragility of Putin’s regime was starkly highlighted last summer when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the deceased leader of the Wagner Group – who was most likely killed on Putin’s orders in August – led a march towards Moscow. Although Putin emerged on top at the end, this event revealed cracks within the Russian military and political landscape, exposing how quickly and unexpectedly Putin’s grip on the country can unravel.

Moreover, there is a broader issue facing Russia: a systemic decline exacerbated by a focus on military endeavors. Russia’s current war economy diverts critical resources away from key areas such as education and technology. As the rest of the world moves forward in the technological revolution, Russia remains preoccupied with territorial conquests in Ukraine and managing internal dissent. This leads to a brain drain, with many of Russia’s brightest minds emigrating in search of better opportunities and freedom of expression. This weakens Russia’s long-term economic and technological standing.

Essentially, while Putin’s government remains robust in the short term, there are inherent limitations. The regime, built on fear and suppression, requires constant vigilance to maintain. The long-term implications of this governance style suggest a downward spiral for Russia, leading to bigger challenges in the future.

In the short to medium-term, Western powers face a protracted challenge in dealing with Putin’s Russia. Navalny’s death is a stark reminder that, barring unforeseen circumstances, Putin’s regime is likely to continue its authoritarian trajectory, further clamping down on any form of opposition. The situation is somewhat similar to the Cold War era, suggesting that the West might have to brace for a long and enduring geopolitical standoff, similar to what was experienced with the Soviet Union.

The West must also be prepared for a protracted conflict in Ukraine. Russia’s military actions and strategic objectives in Ukraine indicate a long-term commitment. Moreover, the West must remain vigilant against Russia’s potential interference in the domestic affairs of EU countries and the United States. The Kremlin has demonstrated a capability and willingness to influence foreign politics through a variety of means, including disinformation campaigns, political manipulation, and direct interference in elections.

In contemporary Russia, President Vladimir Putin's popularity endures, bolstered significantly by a strong sense of patriotism and a national aspiration to affirm Russia as a major global power. This sentiment is deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche, reflecting a collective desire to reassert the nation's status on the world stage, reminiscent of its historical prominence. Putin's leadership is intertwined with this narrative; he is widely perceived as the architect of Russia's resurgence, instrumental in restoring its dignity and international standing after the perceived humiliations of the post-Soviet era. His assertive foreign policy and firm domestic stance resonate with a populace eager to see Russia respected and feared, rather than sidelined or underestimated.

Putin remains genuinely popular in Russia, not least because of a widespread belief among Russians that the West harbors intentions to undermine Russia’s sovereignty, seeking to reduce it to a subservient position in the global order. Many Russians view Putin as a bulwark against these perceived external threats, the only leader with the strength and resolve to fend off attempts at diminishing their country’s power and influence. In the forthcoming presidential election in March, there will be no genuine opposition. However, even if the elections were conducted fairly, Putin would win. Consequently, the West should not rely on an internal revolution to unseat Putin’s government. The entrenchment of Putin’s power, fueled by nationalistic fervor and a deep-seated wariness of the West, suggests that any significant change in Russia’s political landscape is unlikely to originate from within its borders.

Ultimately, Alexei Navalny’s untimely death has major implications for the future of Russia and its relationship with the West. It unequivocally exposes the authoritarian nature of Putin’s regime and sets the stage for a continued, if not heightened, period of tension and confrontation between Russia and Western powers. This standoff is likely to persist indefinitely.

Alexander Clackson is the founder of Global Political Insight think tank in London, and a researcher on Russia, which he has covered for the past decade. He is currently conducting research on the political views of ethnic minorities in Russia.