04 May 2021 19:21 IST

Alexei Navalny, Putin’s greatest foe, and the West's favourite Russian

A worker paints over a graffiti depicting jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg, Russia The graffiti reads: "The hero of the new age."   -  Anton Vaganov| Reuters

The jailed opposition leader’s charismatic leadership has mobilised a vast movement against Putin

Perhaps you are a fan of the writer John le Carré. Or you love Frederick Forsyth's books. These spy writers, along with other British greats like Graham Greene, revolutionised an entire genre of literature that takes readers deep into the intrigue of the covert world.

But if you have never read one of these treatises, you could get the same thrill by simply turning on the BBC and following the story of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, who, in President Putin’s tight 17-year grip over the vast state, has become his worst bête noire. The disgust that the two men have for each other is legendary, rivalling the hatred that Neville Chamberlain had for Winston Churchill, or that Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of President JFK, had for President Lyndon Johnson.

With one difference.

The other men did not lay a finger on their enemies. Putin, at least according to western powers, has tried to use Russia’s ubiquitous security forces to physically harm Navalny. According to press reports, Navalny was poisoned by Russian federal agents before he boarded a domestic flight in Russia in August 2020. He recovered only because the plane made an emergency landing and was cared for by medical personnel en route to an emergency room. Later, on being taken to Berlin for treatment, German doctors confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.

Weeding out threats

Chemical and biological weapons have been outlawed since the 1925 Geneva convention. In imposing sanctions on key Russian intelligence services, U S Secretary of State Antony Blinken boldly declared that America was sending “a clear signal that Russia's use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences. Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms.”

Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s reign for nearly ten years. The opposition leader has accused various members of Putin’s administration of corruption and fraud, including, recently, Putin himself. Navalny has organised protest rallies all over Russia with tens of thousands of people denouncing Putin’s rule. Putin has returned the favour, employing the levers of government to make Navalny ineligible to run for presidential elections until 2028.

Putin was hoping that Navalny would become an exile once he went to Germany for treatment. So, when Navalny returned to Russia earlier this year after fully recovering in Germany, Putin arranged for him to be promptly arrested and moved to a high-security prison on a flimsy charge. Western powers cried foul, but Putin ignored them and moved columns of military might to Ukraine’s border, escalating tensions all over Europe. Moscow also announced plans to block foreign naval ships and state vessels in parts of the Black Sea, including near occupied Crimea and the Kerch Strait, although, as of writing this column, Putin has not done so.

Strong opposition figure

In prison, Navalny, complaining about poor medical treatment, announced that he would go on a hunger strike, bringing to memory Gandhi’s frequent weapon against the British. For 22 days, a day longer than Gandhi’s longest fast, Navalny refused all food, losing over 30 lbs. His attending physician warned that he was close to death. The US, the UK, and France collectively panicked and threatened Putin that he would be held responsible for Navalny’s death.



Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on screens via video link during a court hearing in Moscow





But Putin simply doubled down. In his state-of-the-nation speech on April 21, he returned fire, warning of “red lines” in Russia’s security that, if crossed, would bring a powerful “asymmetric” response. The New York Times reported that Putin reminded Western leaders once again of the fearsomeness of his country’s modernised nuclear arsenal. And he boasted of Russia’s moral superiority over the West.

As in-country protests intensified demanding that Navalny first receive medical treatment and then be released — the BBC reported that protesters were just a few blocks from the Kremlin — Putin snubbed them all by not even mentioning Navalny in his rousing speech.

And miraculously, on April 23, Navalny said that he is calling off his hunger strike. That he voluntarily suspended his protest improves his chances of recovery but gives Putin the upper hand in maintaining that the Russian government never backed down. Privately, Western leaders sighed relief, hoping that the Navalny problem will silently go away. No leader wants to currently engage with Putin, not when each is busy extinguishing more pressing fires such as the Covid-19 spread or social justice protests or economic revival.

Gaining international prominence

Russia and China, the two powers that have always irked the West, are permanent members and close partners at the U N Security Council. Each country is becoming increasingly more powerful, the former, militarily, while China continues to push infrastructure-diplomacy through its One Belt One Road initiative. China has paid no price on the world stage for its role in triggering Covid, even after it has successfully conquered the pandemic as other countries continue to grapple with it. Nearly 100 nations are dependent upon Russia and China for arms, security, loans, nation-building technology, and now, vaccines.

The rise in the international stature of these two countries is a direct function of how each strongman — Putin and Xi Jinping — is unrivalled domestically in each country with the vast apparatus in both government and Party meekly rubber-stamping anything that they say. Their power is absolute. And as Lord Acton famously said in 1887 — “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

At 44, Alexei Navalny is young, charismatic, and a lawyer who knows how to play domestic politics while still appealing to the West. He is Putin’s biggest political threat across all nine time zones of the Russian landscape. The West would go to any lengths to dilute Putin’s power, and befriending Navalny is a crucial first step. It is little wonder that the West sings in praise although Navalny himself has had repeated problems with Russian law, including being charged multiple times with embezzling state funds.



A woman holds up an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin that reads 'Should the thief be in the Kremlin?' during a rally in support of jailed Russian politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia.   -  Maxim Shemetov | Reuters






But next door, the West’s biggest regret is that there is no Navalny-like figure in China. And if Xi Jinping’s approach to Hong Kong and Taiwan are an indication, there likely will never be.