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Navalny's Challenge to Putin: A Q&A with Vice Provost Hanson

  • Stephen Hanson
    Russian and Soviet expert:  Stephen E. Hanson is the vice provost for international affairs, the director of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies and Lettie Pate Evans Professor in the Department of Government at William & Mary.  Reves Center photo
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Stephen E. Hanson is the vice provost for international affairs, the director of the Wendy and Emery Reves Center for International Studies and Lettie Pate Evans Professor in the Department of Government at William & Mary. Hanson is also a renowned expert in Russian and Soviet history and politics, so we reached out to him to help put into broader context the recent headlines about Alexey Navalny and Russian protests.

Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) has called on President Joe Biden to impose sanctions on at least eight high profile Russian figures it says are close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. FBK said it had submitted a broader list of 35 people in total in a letter addressed to Biden with eight named on a "priority shortlist." The letter says seven of the 35 individuals are already on US sanctions lists. Do you think that is a reasonable/viable request? Will it have the impact for which they hope?

Navalny’s request that the U.S. impose new sanctions on some of Russia’s richest oligarchs is perfectly logical for an anti-corruption campaigner like him. And although the U.S. has imposed sanctions on some of these individuals in the past, there has been a tendency for U.S. foreign policy to leave loopholes for some of those closest to President Putin to continue to travel to and do business in the West without too much difficulty. Having said that, there are several challenges for the Biden Administration in carrying out this sort of request. First, to be effective, sanctions of this kind must be closely coordinated with our European allies, who have diverging interests in their relationships with Russia and who are less likely to follow the American lead than in the past. Second, the events of January 6, 2021 have at least temporarily undercut America’s global image as a democratic leader, which might rob such sanctions of some of their previous moral force. Finally, in the longer run, the overuse of sanctions as a major instrument of American power can eventually accelerate efforts by Russia, China, and others to develop alternative currency systems independent of the U.S. dollar—although this is not an immediate prospect, to be sure.

As reported in the NY Times, Navalny’s associates have said, “only street protests can force the Kremlin to change course.” As we’ve seen on the news, tens of thousands of people have rallied for Mr. Navalny each of the last two weekends in cities across Russia. But is that the kind of public pressure to which Putin has responded in the past? Is there anything in past experience that would suggest he would be affected by it much less relent?

The massive street protests across the Russian Federation since Navalny’s return to his homeland are clearly very significant. For the first time in the Putin era, there is clearly one universally-recognized leader of the opposition forces, around which quite disparate groupings are now rallying. The impressive show of national coordination by the opposition—in the dead of winter, amid brutally cold temperatures in many Russian cities—might, in turn, raise doubts among some Russian high officials and oligarchs in the Kremlin about just how long President Putin can remain impervious to such challenges. He is, after all, nearing his 70s, and twenty years in power is a long time for a single leader by any comparative standard. Having said that, the elite around Putin has remained quite united against Navalny’s movement thus far. Many of these individuals have known Putin personally since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and their loyalty runs very deep. Until and unless we see signs of an elite split at the highest levels of the Russian state, the opposition’s hopes for near-term “regime change” in Russia are likely to be disappointed.

Navalny’s associates and supporters seem full of optimism. Leonid Volkov, a top aide, said on Facebook that Navalny’s group would continue to organize protests, investigate corruption, and support Kremlin critics in elections. “We know that everything is only beginning,” Mr. Volkov wrote. “We’re in a moment of enormous moral superiority. The whole country saw how Putin is afraid.” In theory, in a true democracy “moral superiority” and public opinion can be a force for change, but in a country like Russia, does it really affect Putin and his government? Has Putin ever shown that he cares about moral superiority and public opinion?

Moral authority and public opinion do matter in Russia, as they do in all societies. And Navalny’s undeniable bravery in returning home after his poisoning, risking almost certain imprisonment under harsh conditions—and perhaps death—was a key catalyst of the current protest movement. One of the Kremlin’s typical PR ploys in dealing with opposition figures to date has been to portray them as cynical opportunists who are really in it for the money, or who must be in the employ of the Western “special services,” or both. This sort of negative publicity usually works very well in dividing Russian public opinion, given the generally skeptical attitude of Russians toward politicians in the post-Soviet era, and the fact that there are indeed many cases of “fake” opposition leaders and parties set up to serve the interests of particular business groupings or political factions. But this tactic simply doesn’t work in dealing with Navalny now. The regime can and does make the case that Navalny’s past flirtations with Russian nationalism are a dangerous sign, that if he were to gain power he would only destabilize the country, and that he is helping to spread COVID-19 with his calls for mass demonstrations—but they can’t effectively argue that Navalny is simply an “opportunist” who is in this for himself alone. And that is a big change that reduces the power of pro-regime propaganda significantly.

Can you think of any comparable public demonstrations in Russian or Soviet history?

In terms of their geographic scope, relatively broad representation of different strata within the Russian populace, and remarkably unified messaging, these are the most significant large scale demonstrations in Russia since the late Soviet era, when Democratic Russia mobilized millions of people to protest against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union led by Gorbachev. Having said that, it’s important to note that there have also been major public demonstrations throughout the Putin era, including large-scale protests against election fraud when Putin returned to the Presidency after the Medvedev interregnum in 2011-2012, well-attended marches against changes to pensions and benefits and against malfeasance by state officials, and significant protests in several Russian cities against the removal of popular local leaders. The notion that Russians are by nature quiescent in the face of authoritarian rule is a highly misleading myth.

Last week the United States formally extended a critical nuclear accord with Russia for five years, opting to prolong limits on the arsenals of both nations two days before the treaty’s expiration date and bringing a measure of stability to U.S.-Russia relations on nuclear matters. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the extension of the New START accord ensures verifiable limits will remain on Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine launch ballistic missiles and heavy bombers until 2026, and keeps in place a mutual verification regime that gives the United States greater insight into Russia’s nuclear posture. Is this something that is in play because of Navalny or is it an issue that is independent? Does it have any impact on Navalny’s case?

The five-year extension of New START is very good news, since it represents the last major arms control agreement between the world’s two largest nuclear powers—and starting arms control over entirely from scratch would have been a daunting prospect. The Biden Administration is correct to argue that the U.S. needs to work with Russia on topics of potential mutual interest, including arms control, climate change, international management of the Arctic region, and so on, at the same time as it tries gradually to rebuild U.S. credibility as promoter of global democracy and human rights. In a way, this is simply a return to America’s traditional foreign policy posture. Even at the height of the Cold War, when U.S. criticism of the Soviet Union’s human rights record was sharp and persistent, diplomatic meetings and leadership summits between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were a regular occurrence.

Do you have any instinctive sense of how things with Navalny might play out?
Where is this all headed? In the short run, Putin hopes that the lengthy prison sentence meted out to Navalny, along with the arrests of many of his closest associates, will buy enough time for the protest wave to die down. In combination with several recent changes to Russian law that strictly limit freedom of speech and that can brand even ordinary Russian citizens with opposition views as “foreign agents,” there is certainly a chance that such a strategy of increased repression will be effective. But there has been some serious damage done to Putin’s image as a benevolent “father of the nation” during these events. Navalny’s well-produced video about “Putin’s Palace” on the Black Sea has been viewed over 100 million times, mostly within Russia. Many of his allegations about Putin’s hidden wealth have been covered earlier in the Western media, but particularly for younger Russians who have never lived under any other leader, Navalny’s case that Russia’s current economic travails are due to high-level corruption at the very top will no doubt be compelling.