The Putin paradox: Five things Navalny’s arrest says about Russia

The events Navalny set in motion both indicate the urgent need for change and make such change less likely to happen

A demonstrator holds a Russian flag with a message reading “Fight, Russia!” near the Dormition Cathedral during an unauthorised protest in support of the detained opposition activist Alexei Navalny
Image by picture alliance/dpa/TASS | Yevgeny Sofiychuk

It is difficult to understand the implications of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s arrest without first answering a fundamental question: why was he poisoned to start with? An informed guess on this would allow one to make some assumptions about what the powers that be in Moscow fear, hope, and want to achieve – and how they might go about it. As things stand, uncertainty rules. But one can still make a few cautious conclusions about the state of Russian politics.

The regime in Moscow seems increasingly aware of its limits and its brittleness

For years, various power holders in Moscow have insisted that Navalny was not a threat to President Vladimir Putin, nor to the political system. And they were right: even though Navalny is the best-known and most popular opposition figure in Russia – and even though he produces scathing exposés of corruption with the wonderful sarcasm that free-thinking Russians are so good at – he was not truly an existential threat to the system. Furthermore, in some paradoxical ways, he was part of it – in the way that corruption is part of it. With his focus on corruption, Navalny has been a one-issue politician, which made him a painful thorn in the side of the Putinist system but not (yet) someone who could articulate a vision of a different system, a totally different paradigm. It is unclear how good a coalition builder he could be – in a political desert, there are not many partners for him to find. But most of the population has always been ambivalent about him: according to a Levada Center poll conducted in September 2020, 20 per cent of Russians approved of Navlany’s activities, while 50 per cent disapproved; 33 per cent trusted him, while 55 per cent did not.

So, if the Kremlin has suddenly come to view Navalny as a serious threat, this probably has less to do with his strength, even if it was growing, than with the weaknesses of the system – which are increasing even faster. The signs of this weakness are everywhere: the lacklustre ratings of the party of power, people’s readiness to vote for anyone but it, massive distrust of the government’s handling of the pandemic, and sporadic outbreaks of protest that rumble on for many months. In these conditions, Navalny’s smart voting strategy and exposés of corruption could indeed start looking dangerous in new ways.

Sidelining Navalny can only slow the Kremlin’s loss of legitimacy

It is unclear where the stand-off between the Kremlin and Navalny will lead. Some recent events in Russia suggest new levels of escalation: the geography of the protests; the variety of their participants, who include people outside Navalny’s traditional support base; the number of arrests; and the level of police brutality. Even more significant is the Kremlin’s need to explain away the infamous Black Sea palace allegedly owned by Putin – the subject of Navalny’s latest exposé – and the way in which Navalny has generally set the agenda, leaving the Kremlin on the back foot, reacting to him. Even so, this does not yet mean an imminent breakthrough and victory. The protests could still peter out in the way they have in Khabarovsk. But, then again, this would not matter. The Kremlin’s real problem is not Navalny, but its inability to renew itself.

If the Putinist system is to survive and modify itself in an evolutionary manner (rather than crack in a revolutionary manner), it needs to do something – and soon. The Kremlin needs to reinvigorate its economy, introduce new faces and some real accountability into the political system, and indicate that renewal is coming at the highest political levels. Ever since the 2018 presidential election, the political system has been waiting for such a signal. The tiredness – of everyone, including the elites – has been palpable. But the paradox is that, while Putin might understand the need for renewal, he hesitates to engage in it. The less stable the situation, the stronger his instinct to stick to the status quo and maintain personal control. We may have seen this last year – if it is true that the covid-19 pandemic derailed the plan to introduce constitutional changes that would allow Putin to slowly retreat from power. And, if so, the events Navalny set in motion both indicate the urgent need for change and make such change less likely to happen.

The Kremlin has lost its knack for political witchcraft

For many years, the Kremlin has navigated around the legitimacy problem by managing the political landscape. Its spin doctors have created and killed political parties; concocted and resolved political intrigues. This is what ‘managed democracy’ was all about: spectacle without true substance. In 2011 that approach helped fend off probably the most serious crisis the Putinist system has faced – the protests that erupted after Putin announced his return to the Kremlin, and the rigged elections that followed. Back then, the Kremlin lost the sympathy of the urban intelligentsia. But by painting this group as foreign agents – as advocates of Western ‘decadence’ and ‘gay propaganda’ – it held on to a majority that is conservatively homophobic and inclined towards suspicion of the West.

Oversight of domestic politics has now moved from the ‘political technologists’ to the security agencies, whose instinct is to exercise control by suppression rather than cunning intrigues

For a brief moment, it seemed that there might be a replay of 2011: it was tempting to think that the Kremlin – worried about the Duma election in September and expecting pressure for democratic reform from the Biden administration and a freshly reunited West – consciously decided to draw the Western spotlight to Navalny, and to focus its rhetorical attacks on him. Given Navalny’s controversial reputation and fragmented support base in Russia, this might have garnered support for the Kremlin from the rest of the society. The Kremlin would have lost Navalny’s supporters the way it lost urban intelligentsia in 2011 but would still have held on to the majority of the population, even if by an ever-thinner majority.

That may have been possible for the Kremlin of 2011 but, alas, it seems beyond the reach of the tired Kremlin of 2021. The news coming out of Moscow suggests that the truth is much more simple and crude: oversight of domestic politics has now moved from the ‘political technologists’ to the security agencies, whose instinct is to exercise control by suppression rather than cunning intrigues.

Deepening takeover by security agencies

This tendency – more and more files moving to security agencies – has been evident for quite a while now, and it concerns not only domestic affairs but also foreign policy.

Not only has the foreign ministry lost control of some foreign policy files – such as Ukraine (which has long been handled by the presidential administration) and Syria (which fell to the Ministry of Defence after 2015) – it also seems to have been left out of wider interagency coordination. The current low point in Russia’s relationship with Germany is a perfect example of this. In the past few years, Russia has seen a pile-up of problems in its relationship with Germany: starting with the hack of the Bundestag in 2015 and the ‘Lisa case’ in 2016, continuing with the Tiergarten murder in 2019, and culminating with Navalny. It seems plausible that the perpetrators of these incidents all came from slightly different places inside the Russian system and operated according to their own logic and needs. These were not thought-through and coordinated moves against Germany. However, Moscow failed to appreciate that, in Berlin, they would appear to be a string of hostile actions by Russia. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs could have certainly told the Kremlin how these actions would affect Russia’s relationship with Germany – which is its best friend in the European Union and is instrumental in forging the EU consensus. Russian diplomats could have explained why this matters. But it seems that the Kremlin either did not ask or did not listen. The Kremlin’s tiredness has brought about fragmentation in its policy; it does not even try to take a holistic view of its actions and their impact. As in the German example, it is usually foreign policy and the institutions that make it – those relying on diplomatic means – that are losing out. And this, in turn, has the effect of reducing any leverage that the West might have to affect the situation.

The West has to act, but can do little

Moscow has scored another own goal in that, for years, it has asked the West not to intervene in Russia’s internal affairs – but, given Navalny’s stay in Germany, it has made it impossible for the West to do nothing. Ever since Biden’s election, Moscow has been wary of Washington’s renewed rhetoric on the bleak state of Russian democracy – but, by arresting Navalny at the airport, it has brought on such criticism. If there was any debate in the United States on what sort of Russia policy to adopt – cold, pragmatic interaction or democracy promotion – then Moscow has made a strong case for the latter.

However, even if the West might feel it needs to do something, little of what it could do would have the intended effect. If the regime in Moscow truly feels that Navalny poses an existential threat (rightly or wrongly), there is nothing the West could offer or threaten that would change this calculation. Neither threats nor offers of dialogue would have a meaningful impact. The way that the policy processes in Moscow have become uncoordinated – with security agencies gaining power and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs losing influence – underscores this.

It is likely that Western countries will do something – such as adopt a few more targeted sanctions. This gesture will be necessary to indicate their position, even if it is largely ineffective. But, if the above analysis is at all correct, they should prepare for years of frustration in their relationship with a regime in Moscow that is slowly decaying, unable to renew itself, and fears for its survival.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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