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Alexei Navalny's Arrest Sparks Nationwide Protests | An Expert Analysis

On January 17, Alexei Navalny was immediately arrested upon his return to Russia from Germany, triggering a massive wave of protests across Russia. The Kennan Institute recently asked several of our experts to weigh in on this developing story and consider the following questions:

  1. What did the Kremlin hope to achieve by arresting Alexei Navalny, and has his arrest weakened the government’s hand?
  2. What can we infer from the widespread nature of the protests on January 23rd, as well as the Kremlin’s response?
  3. How has pro- or anti-opposition sentiment changed recently among different demographics, and might shifting support lead to a long-running series of protests, like we’ve seen in Khabarovsk and Belarus?
  4. Would further sanctions or punitive measures taken by the West alter the Putin regime’s calculus on dealing with the protests?
  5. Do Alexei Navalny’s politics matter?

Read contributions from Anna Arutunyan, Sergey Parkhomenko, Nina Rozhanovskaya, Regina Smyth, and Yuval Weber below.

Explore the Analysis from Our Experts

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    1. In some ways, the Kremlin had no choice but to arrest Alexei Navalny. Whatever role the government had in his poisoning and whatever its strategy may have been prior to last month, Navalny’s exposé of the FSB trail around his poisoning and his decision to return to Russia were not expected and in effect shattered whatever plans might have been in place. The Kremlin is caught between two conflicting strategies: on the one hand, it believes Navalny to be an agent of the West, the United States in particular, and therefore potentially an instrument of regime change. On the other, it fears galvanizing his supporters by acting on that perceived threat and thus lending credence to it. So, while it cannot allow Navalny to remain at large inside Russia, it is struggling to find the optimal way of keeping him imprisoned: likely through a series of trumped-up corruption charges to deflect attention from the political threat the Kremlin fears he poses.

    2. There was some violence, but compared to the brutal police responses in 2017 and 2019, despite a number of individual overreactions, on the whole, the police were relatively restrained. The Kremlin is taking a cautious approach: it can’t clamp down too harshly on the protests lest doing so fuel the protestors’ anger, but neither can it signal that unauthorized demonstrations to pressure the Kremlin are acceptable. Down the line we’ll see a mix of harsher crackdowns interspersed with allowing the protests, to let off steam in the hope that they peter out.

    3. There is evidence of some wider support, particularly among younger people, and this has been an ongoing trend. What is perhaps more interesting is that over the last two or three years there has been a trend toward protests with a specific agenda being moderately successful in getting their demands met. This suggests a growing responsiveness of the government to civic demands, but at the same time places the Kremlin in the awkward position of in effect encouraging protests, which it then has to suppress. Hence the pendulum we’ve seen in the last few years: between unexpected lenience and harsher crackdowns.

    4. Not really. The Kremlin already believes that the West is maligning Russia, piling on sanctions to weaken it regardless of what Russia does, so it might as well do whatever it needs to do.

    5. Navalny’s association with Russian nationalism, particularly in the past, sets him apart, in the West’s eyes, from the kind of liberal opposition it expects. But while he has flirted with nationalism, it doesn’t define him politically. Rather, Navalny is in many ways a reflection of various strains of political thought among wide swaths of the Russian public. That, however, will matter more in the long term than it does in the short term—if and when he is a viable contender for political office. Right now, however, he is building his political strategy around fighting corruption, and that is what resonates most.

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    As I write these notes, the number of views of the latest documentary published by Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation is approaching 97 million. It is a two-hour video that presents the results of an investigation into a grand and ridiculous palace on the Black Sea coast worth over 100 billion rubles (almost $1.4 billion). This palace, according to the investigation, is the result of years of work by a sophisticated system of government corruption that operates with astronomical amounts of money. The ultimate beneficiary, Navalny claims, is Putin personally and members of his family, whose existence is also a secret that is being carefully hidden by the Kremlin authorities.

    Even if we assume that the figure of 97 million views overstates the actual viewership (some viewers watch the film several times), we can have no doubt that this number is comparable to the number of all Russian voters who participated in the last presidential election in the spring of 2018 (108.5 million people). And it certainly exceeds the 73.6 million votes cast for Putin, according to official—and very dubious—voting results.

    Thus the investigation published by Alexei Navalny after he was imprisoned in Matrosskaya Tishina prison, which is known for its strict conditions and the complete isolation of prisoners from the outside world, has become a powerful factor in Russian domestic politics.

    Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have been publishing their investigations for nine years. The authors have often been reproached for choosing as the targets of their revelations various officials of today's Russia, but never President Putin himself. After Navalny became the victim of a poisoning attack, spent eighteen days in a deep coma, underwent a difficult recovery, and miraculously survived, his priorities seemed to change.

    Personally, Putin has proven to be the immediate target of Navalny’s harsh and highly probative criticism both in those investigations that concern the Russian secret services (Navalny found and exposed there a squadron of poisoners systematically engaged in political assassinations) and in those that uncover the secrets of colossal corruption involving the Kremlin.

    This is a completely new situation. Vladimir Putin, throughout the entire twenty years of his rule in Russia, has developed a reputation as an authoritarian leader who has allowed a system of large-scale corruption and the involvement of political leadership in oligarchic business to emerge in Russia. But Putin's personal corruption has never been demonstrated as convincingly as Navalny has now.

    What is very noticeable is not only the change in the content of the critical attacks on Vladimir Putin but also the radical change in the tone of this criticism and these revelations.

    President Putin has never looked as ridiculous, grotesque, and pathetic as he does now. In the past few days, various aides have come forward in Putin's defense, including his press secretary Dmitry Peskov, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, and parliamentary party leaders, who have taken turns publicly swearing that they hate the opposition leader. And Putin himself has also on several occasions tried to justify his behavior and put daylight between himself and the palace compound. But all these attempts look very ridiculous and evoke a reaction that is contemptuous and humiliating for the president and his entourage.

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    1. In game theory, for deterrence to work, the threat of retaliation needs to be credible. If the looming arrest was meant to deter Alexei Navalny from returning to Russia, then failing to deliver on that threat would have been interpreted as a weakness of the Russian law enforcement bodies, if not of the entire political regime. In announcing his intention to return to Russia, Navalny won that round of the political game by forcing his opponents to choose between suboptimal strategies. But seeing the bending of Russian legal norms and procedures for the sake of his trial as the sign of a weakened hand and impending political change would be an overly optimistic interpretation.

    2. Over the past several years, the residents of many Russian cities have shown a willingness to voice their grievances when local issues were at stake but have been hard to mobilize for a more abstract agenda. The expansive geography of the January 23 rallies may indicate that Alexei Navalny’s case came to personify injustice broadly, and injustice feels as urgent and immediate as any local problem.

    While Russian protests have remained predominantly peaceful so far, with no looting, broken windows, or cars set on fire, there has been a notable escalation of police intimidation and the increased targeting of opposition leaders and media figures. In this context, comments by Belarusian users of social media who say that this all looks familiar and predict that Russia is heading toward a Belarusian-style regime response sound very sobering.

    3. Authorities have tried to discredit the protests by presenting them as a riot of high school kids and are using the clause on the “drawing of minors into unlawful activities” to go after some of the protest organizers. In the meantime, preliminary surveys indicate that the share of minors participating in the protests was low, and the role of teenagers in Russian politics is as exaggerated as it was in the spring of 2017.

    There may be potential for short-term growth of protests in scale, if not for long-term sustainability, but there are limiting factors. For instance, in Moscow, the police department quickly reaches its detention capacity, but the city has the personnel and the infrastructure to track down activists later. Regional law enforcement bodies are not so well equipped, but smaller cities may lack legal support systems for activists and the price of losing a job may be higher there.

    5.Over the years, Russian liberals have lamented the deficiencies of this or that opposition politician and discussed whether this or that public figure was “handshakable.” Alexei Navalny’s nationalist views were often a point of contention and alienated many people before he shifted the focus of his rhetoric to corruption. The important lesson that Russian voters have yet to learn may be to appreciate having a choice instead of waiting for a perfect candidate. Navalny’s smart voting (umnoye golosovaniye) strategy, a tactical effort to unite voters and candidates behind the strongest oppositional candidate, was a push in that direction.

    Alexei Navalny’s politics will matter as soon as there is even a remote chance of him running for office again. He is the most prominent figure in the Russian opposition today, but likening him to inspiring figures from other countries’ histories and scrutinizing his agenda as if he were a presidential candidate distract from the fact that the current protests are about more than just his personality and his fate.

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    1. Russian officials would have preferred that Navalny remain abroad, which would have diminished his influence at home. Since September 2020, three legal threats have been launched, aimed at discouraging Navalny’s return: the catering magnate and Putin ally Evgeny Prigozhin’s suit for libel, which provided the pretext for freezing Navalny’s assets; an arrest warrant from the Penitentiary Service for violating probation; and new fraud charges. Altogether, these offenses carry a long prison sentence. When Navalny was not deterred, the Kremlin was forced to act decisively at the airport.

    2. The January 23 protests were complicated, bringing together Navalny supporters, people alarmed by growing state aggression, and others frustrated by economic stagnation. They differed from past protests in four important ways. First, the January 23 protests combined economic and political grievances for the first time, extending the mobilization potential to new social groups. Second, these events engaged activists in regional capitals and small cities across the federation. Third, the mobilization efforts of the Navalny team were amplified by overwhelming bottom-up agitation on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and other new media platforms. This bottom-up action was particularly important in the face of the fourth difference, a markedly more aggressive police response, which resulted in the detention of regional leaders prior to January 23 and additional detentions throughout the January 23 protests.

    3. Navalny tapped into two reinforcing changes in Russian society:  the spread of 3-G internet access and the generational divide. In an analysis of survey data from the Moscow protest, the political economist Alexei Zakharov highlighted the effect of these changes on protest participation: participants’ median age was thirty-one, with 42 percent joining a protest for the first time. Women participated at higher rates than in past protest actions. Contrary to TV claims labeling organizers “political pedophiles,” the anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova reported that only 4 percent of participants were younger than eighteen. This evidence suggests that many former activists who stayed on the sidelines will join the January 31 events, especially in the regions, where there is pent-up frustration. Contestation will continue throughout the next election cycle, but it will not always be in the form of large protest events.

    4. One source of Western influence has already been advocated by President Biden: pursuit of measures to increase the transparency of oligarchs’ financial activities abroad and enforcement of laws eliminating anonymous shell corporations. It is possible that Putin will try to neutralize Navalny by accelerating his ongoing “anticorruption campaign”, using new constitutional provisions and supporting laws that restrict incumbents’ foreign assets, real estate transactions, and citizenship. The United States should “cooperate” to restrict the influence of dark money.

    5. It is important to decouple Navalny’s personal appeal from his political strategy. Navalny is playing a long game in which protests and elections are steps toward building an effective opposition. Since 2011, he has challenged the Kremlin’s control over electoral outcomes. These tactics range from labeling United Russia “the Party of Crooks and Thieves” to his SmartVote app, which has influenced municipal elections. He has also contested the Kremlin’s narrative. The Putin’s Palace video links corruption to the regime’s failed modernization program—its overarching plan. It is telling that the video ends with an appeal to vote in September’s regional elections. These actions, like Navalny’s decision to return home, generate friction between the state and society and introduce uncertainty. Yet most Russians just want a better life and a more responsive government, not a revolution. President Putin has the resources to diffuse challenges and forestall confrontation – Navalny has put the ball squarely in his court.

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    1. Vladimir Putin’s core political argument to the people of Russia isn’t that a “better” Russia is impossible but that Russia without him would be far worse. His main political opponent for the past twenty years has been the transitional period of the 1990s and every other era of instability (smutnoye vremya) in Russian history. Therefore, his goal is to centralize power and politics so much that government officials, elites, the public, and dissidents all believe that change is a distant ideal managed from the top and not a public process. Any use of violence or coercion by the government can then be “understood” as a necessary, albeit unpleasant, inoculation against further disorder.

     

    For the past several weeks, however, Alexei Navalny has dictated the pace and structure of Russian political life, first by releasing a video in which he tricked one of his Novichok poisoners into making a confession and then by exchanging a comfortable life in exile for an indeterminate prison sentence on returning to Russia. Obviously, the Kremlin hoped that would be the end of the story.

    Navalny’s arrest has so far proved to be the beginning of a much larger story by translating Russian domestic affairs to an international stage. By returning to Russia during the week of the US presidential inauguration, Navalny seized on the two aspects of American politics that matter to Russia’s foreign policy and international image: Joe Biden would immediately have to deal with Russia, in light of the expiration of the New START treaty in the very near future, while making good on his campaign rhetoric, which emphasized human rights and democracy as core presidential values. After Navalny was jailed, his team released a video connecting Putin to a gigantic palace on the Black Sea Coast that has turned into one of the most widely watched YouTube videos in recent memory (99 million views and counting as of this writing), then called on his supporters to protest his detention exacerbated by the outrage at the size and tacky spectacle of the Gelendzhik palace. The anger of Navalny’s supporters and the fortuitous opportunity for Biden to demonstrate his values mean that Putin has no easy answers for the protestors except coercion, and no answer to Biden except to complain about external interference in Russia’s internal business.

    Make no mistake: when given the choice between maintaining domestic control versus upholding a positive image at home and abroad, Putin will choose control every time at any cost. It is clear, however, that Navalny turned the expected strength of the government (arrest and imprisonment) into a weakness by highlighting the wound to Putin’s authority, the extraordinary lengths the government will go to punish people on the street, and the reframing of US-Russia relations along issues of values and morality. I’m no martial arts expert, but seems like a neat judo move.

    4. The Kremlin has successfully weathered the sanctions regime by compensating sanctioned persons, firms, and government bodies, promoting import substitution industrialization, and adopting macroeconomic policies that place low inflation above optimizing growth. Unless the West wants to do something big (cut Russia off from SWIFT, ban Russian airlines from international airspace, end nonhumanitarian imports and exports, block the completion of Nord Stream 2), a few more sanctions won’t really make much of a difference.

    5. Navalny’s politics are probably those of the median voter in Russia—a strong antipathy for gross corruption, the desire for greater political choice, an interest in fewer foreign policy crises, and perhaps above all, a visceral hatred for Ramzan Kadyrov—but they do not really matter at this stage. He has reframed his personal defiance of Putin into more general questions of whether individuals matter in Russia, whether they are allowed to participate in politics, and whether groups of people can join together in common cause. In effect, his “politics” at the moment are human rights, civic rights, and democracy. He may turn out to be a terrible politician at some (distant) point in the future when and if he is released from prison, but he returned to Russia out of abstract principle, not to pursue any specific policies somewhere along a left-right spectrum.


Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more