- Opposition activist Navalny has outmanoeuvred Russia’s Putin at every turn, despite being in prison, national security sources say.
- If Putin kills Navalny, it could exacerbate unrest among the public.
- If Putin lets Navalny live, then Navalny remains a focus point for resistance.
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A weekend of demonstrations against President Vladimir Putin, sparked by the arrest of opposition and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, has boxed Putin into an odd corner, according to European diplomats and intelligence officials.
Putin suddenly has no obvious good options for dealing with Navalny, a longtime critic of the Russian autocrat.
Navalny had just returned to Russia from Germany where he had recovered from being poisoned last August while in Tomsk, Russia, probably by Putin loyalists. He was imprisoned upon his arrival — which only heightened his profile.
That seems to be derailing Putin’s preferred narrative, which is that Navalny is an irrelevant gadfly and not the leader of a mass movement that might return democracy to Russia.
Putin hasn’t faced a challenge like this before
The demonstrations held across Russia on Saturday produced protestors in the tens of thousands across Russia — and not just in liberal cities in the West that are often seen as bases for Navalny support but pose little immediate threat to the regime.
Navalny’s skill at explaining the depths of the Putin team’s corruption, and his survival of a baroque poisoning plot that used a substance only available to Russian intelligence, poses a unique challenge, the sort that Putin has never previously faced, multiple officials told Insider.
Half a dozen EU diplomats and intelligence officials all shared the view that Navalny’s repeated provocations against Putin have changed the equation in Russia.
‘Navalny has very much outmaneuvered Putin at each turn since the poisoning’
Since agents of Putin tried to kill him on August 20, Navalny has:
- Survived long enough to be transferred to Germany for successful treatment.
- Used his three-month recovery to investigate the attack with journalists.
- Tricked a Russian intelligence agent into admitting to the plot on an open phone line.
- Returned to Moscow despite threats of arrest.
- Released a two-hour long documentary detailing Putin’s corruption last week, while he was in prison
- And capped that same week by organizing Russia’s largest and most aggressive anti-Putin protests in over a decade.
Observers are at a loss to predict exactly what will happen next, because Putin is stuck inside a Catch-22: If Putin kills Navalny, it could draw more attention to the problem and exacerbate unrest among the public. If Putin lets Navalny live, then Navalny remains a focus point for resistance, whether he is in prison or not.
“Navalny has very much outmaneuvered Putin at each turn since the poisoning. It’s becoming a bit humiliating for him and I’m not sure how safe Navalny might be right now,” said a central European intelligence officer, who works in Russia-related counter-intelligence. “Navalny was supposed to die last summer and there would have been some protests, some arrests, maybe some sanctions — Putin survived the [2015 assassination of dissident politician Boris] Nemstov fine because Boris was dead and all that remained was outrage that eventually faded. Navally alive is a major problem.”
‘I worry that normally calm and cold Putin might be flustered a bit because Navalny makes him look weak’
“I worry that normally calm and cold Putin might be flustered a bit because Navalny makes him look weak to his oligarchs and cronies from the security services,” the official added. “It wouldn’t be prudent to kill him in custody with the entire world watching but the pressure is immense.”
Putin has also lost his main US ally — former president Donald Trump — who would not have pressured Putin for Navalny’s freedom.
European officials were meeting across the continent Monday to discuss responses to the weekend’s events. They are optimistically buoyed by the arrival of US President Joe Biden’s incoming diplomatic team, which has already shown more enthusiasm for engagement on Russia issues than the previous administration.
“The Biden team has just gotten into place and this [situation] will pose a well-timed challenge for the US and Europe to work together,” said a Western European diplomat, who asked not to be named because of ongoing meetings throughout the day in Brussels on the matter.
“We expect and have already seen much strong commitment to confronting Russia on issues like human rights, transparency and corruption from the US side and there will be extensive meetings on Navalny as the situation develops.”
“Beyond that, there’s not many specifics to report yet, it’s an ongoing process.”
With Trump gone, Putin can no longer expect the US to look away
The US State Department released a statement Saturday in support of protestors that has already angered Russian officials.
“The United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies and partners in defence of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
This drew a response from Kremlin press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, who told the Guardian: “We’re not ready for diktat, we’re not ready for boorishness, and we’re not ready for any crossing of red lines.”
“Lots of people are going to say that many people came out to this illegal rally,” Peskov said. “No. Few people came out, but many people vote for Putin. And a lot of people voted for constitutional reform” that will let Putin run for president until 2036, he continued. “If you compare the numbers, you’ll see how few people there were.”