Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has become, arguably, the most recognizable domestic foe of the Kremlin's Vladimir Putin. Following a botched assassination attempt in August 2020, Navalny's story hit the news everywhere in the West.
He was poisoned with the Novichok agent while returning on a plane from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow. Someone put that stuff in his water. Western cyber sleuth company Bellingcat tracked down the FSB assassination team, which left cyber evidence of its operations.
Later, Navalny prank called a secret police officer who allegedly revealed the plot on the phone to the intended victim. Unless it was a provocation or another kind of triple game, the professionalism of Russia's secret police leaves much to be desired.
In any event, Navalny survived, which led Putin to deadpan that "if they wanted to kill him, they would have."
By "they" the Russian president of course meant his own security services. He should know. He is one of them. The current master of the Kremlin, in fact, comes from a long line of operators in the terror apparatus. His grandfather was with the Cheka, the Bolshevik's original secret police, serving as Lenin's cook. Putin's father served with Stalin's NKVD. The Russian president was himself recruited into the KGB, where he ended up in counterintelligence, la crème de la crème of the apparat.
In the Navalny poisoning case P,utin was not merely defending the FSB and dismissing its culpability, but he promoted the usual propaganda line on the secret police's alleged omniscience and omnipotence. It works like the Borg: "Surrender, resistance is futile, we know everything and we are capable of anything, including killing you anytime." Including with Novichok.
The government permitted the oppositionist to be evacuated to Germany, where the doctors saved his life. From his hospital bed Navalny publicly accused Putin of having had tried to kill him. The regime retaliated by bringing charges against him in a clear endeavor to make his departure from Russia permanent. Navalny defiantly returned home in mid-January 2021 and was promptly charged with "extremism" and arrested.
Navalny has been in an out of jail and has served time for political offenses. The Kremlin has even attempted to pin corruption charges on him in to compromise the opposition politician. No sooner than he found himself in a slammer, the defiant fellow divulged yet another Putin corruption scandal: an out-of-wedlock child and a $1 billion secret palace owned by the president complements of alleged embezzled funds.
Navalny's arrest triggered mass demonstrations in a number of places in the Russian Federation, including in the Far East where the angry fans braved minus 58-degree weather. The riot police dispersed the crowds, and took many into custody. As usual, the cops were less brutal in full view of cameras in Moscow, than in the provinces. And the Kremlin warned social media giants to stop fomenting the protests, among young people in particular.
Navalny's fame stems partly from the fact that other oppositionists died under mysterious circumstances, dropped out of the game, linger in the Gulag, or were expelled from the country. Some emigrated to avoid the aforementioned. Thus, he became a top leader of the opposition by default.
Navalny certainly is not the first choice for a Western liberal media darling; but there are not too many anti-Putin Russians left standing. In the West many folks perceive him as a liberal, perhaps even a champion of human rights. That is not exactly right.
Undoubtedly, the oppositionist is one gutsy guy who seems to enjoy to step on Putin's toes. However, both differ little on the paramount role of Russia in the world. For instance, essentially and implicitly, they both question Ukraine's right to exist. Explicitly, both believe that Crimea is Russia. Further, Navalny has not exactly denounced Nordstream-2, the effort to make Germany and the EU even more Russian energy-dependent.
Thus far, Navalny's criticism of the Russian president focuses on corruption. In fact, the most popular chant on the streets in Russia is "Putin vor!" (Putin is a wise guy/made thief). This is not exactly a denunciation of Putin for his aggressive nationalism and imperialism. One can expect Navalny to continue in the same manner, even if to the tune of liberal rhetoric to make himself more palatable internationally.
Navalny will continue to serve as a symbol of defiance. However, short of a revolution, a palace coup, or a foreign invasion, Putin is here to stay. But at least it is good to hear that some Russians know that Putin is a wise guy. We owe this one chiefly to Navalny.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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