It has been two years since a major wave of street protests provoked by the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny hit Russia. To many, the events of January and February 2021 may seem unrelated to the war in Ukraine, but they are, in fact, closely linked. Let us remember how this story unfolded. In August 2020, Navalny suffered a near-lethal poisoning, which landed him in a German hospital. An investigation by Bellingcat and Der Spiegel established with a high level of certainty that he was poisoned by Russian secret service operatives.
Having barely recovered from the poisoning, Navalny surprised many by returning to Russia five months later. He was apprehended at the airport and has been in jail ever since. In the following weeks, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in 185 cities across the country, calling for the opposition leader’s release. According to OVD-Info, a group monitoring political repression in Russia, more than 11,000 people were arrested, dozens were injured and about 90 people faced criminal charges. President Vladimir Putin’s main dark art, which has helped him stay in power for so long, is that of shifting public attention away from domestic troubles. Less than two months after the Navalny protests were suppressed, he ordered the deployment of a massive force at the Russian border with Ukraine in what became a prelude to the full-scale invasion of this country a year later.
These two themes – Russia’s internal instability and the war in Ukraine – are fundamentally interlinked. By waging a war in Ukraine, Putin is avoiding confrontation with his own population and keeping the opposition at bay. He has essentially outsourced his domestic conflict to Russia’s neighbour Ukraine.
Domestic unrest was certainly not the only reason why Putin started preparing for the invasion. That same fateful month, which saw Joe Biden enter the White House, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a drastic change of tack in his Russia policy. He launched an attack on Putin’s chief ally in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, whose party climbed to the top of opinion polls in December 2020. Simultaneously, he initiated much-publicised campaigns for joining NATO and doing away with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. With Medvedchuk still in the game, Putin could have safely counted on the political environment in Ukraine gradually changing in the way that was conducive to his political goals of ending the conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on his terms. But the forceful removal of his ally from the political scene and the destruction of his increasingly influential media empire made this impossible, prompting the Russian president to resort to a more drastic line of action.
Yet it is on the domestic front where Putin has achieved the most by triggering an escalation in Ukraine. Rising tensions served as a smokescreen for the ultimate destruction of Navalny’s movement and the Russian opposition. There is a perverse logic to the Kremlin’s actions if you look at the events from its vantage point. Putin and his entourage genuinely believe that Navalny and his supporters are paid agents of the West intent on staging a Russian version of the Maidan protests. Russia’s initial attack on Ukraine in 2014 was a way of punishing it for its Maidan revolution but, even more importantly, of showing the Russian public what they would face if they followed the Ukrainian example.
The 2014 invasion allowed Putin to quash what remained of the Bolotnaya protest movement, which rocked Moscow in 2011 and 2012. But the relatively calm years following the hot phase of the war in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 saw public attention in Russia shift again to domestic grievances. In 2017 and 2018, opinion pollsters started picking up a dramatic shift in public sentiment: The demand for stability was diminishing in favour of political change. In 2018, a Levada Centre poll showed 57 percent of respondents believed “full-scale changes” were needed in the country. This figure rose to 59 percent the following year. That was also the time when Navalny launched his presidential campaign and set up the largest opposition network in recent history, opening offices in most regions of the country. Fearful of his movement and its Maidan potential, the Kremlin first knocked Navalny out of the presidential race on a made-up pretext and then tried to poison him.
The escalation and eventual full-scale invasion of Ukraine, allowed Putin to do away with the Russian opposition and remove the threat to his regime. This was reflected in opinion polls as well. The share of Russians hoping for change fell to 47 percent in 2022 in Levada’s poll. Today, Navalny is lingering in jail where he is being treated in a way that borders on outright torture. Every other major opposition politician is either jailed, under house arrest or in exile. Hundreds of thousands of anti-Putin Russians have fled the country, including pretty much all independent journalists and most civil society activists. As a result, Putin’s political regime appears to be more stable than ever – even if it loses the war in Ukraine. At the end of the day, there is nothing more stable than an isolated authoritarian regime under Western sanctions. Iran, Cuba and North Korea are a testament to that.
A hostile, isolated Russia is also good for the war hawks in the West and in Eastern Europe promoting hardline policies and militarisation. Meanwhile, pro-Ukrainian infowar groups and hawkish commentators in the West are bashing the Russian opposition with even greater fervour than Putin’s regime while also calling for the breakup of Russia. There is a steep learning curve ahead for Russian leaders and activists before they formulate their (as well as Russia’s) genuine interests and learn to tell friends from foes in the political terrarium of the visionless and disoriented West of the Trump and Brexit epoch. Western ambiguity on Russia’s future does not help when it comes to promoting anti-Putin sentiments in Russia. That explains why the main figures in Navalny’s movement are keeping a fairly low profile in Western media while focusing on developing a propaganda machine to reach out to audiences in Russia, mostly via YouTube. They are also attempting to relaunch the movement’s regional network, but we won’t hear much about the progress for some time, given that these days activist can only operate in clandestine mode. In the meantime, with the war raging, Putin can consider himself fairly Maidan-proof.