The sentencing of Alexey Navalny to 2 years and 8 months in a penal colony yesterday, as well as the ongoing repressions against his supporters, demonstrate that the Kremlin is not willing to share power with its opponents.
But mass detentions, fines, and severe treatment of protesters are more than just immediately useful to an authoritarian regime fighting waning legitimacy among a growing number of its citizens. These moves are part of the Kremlin’s broader communication strategy that goes beyond just the Russian population.
Russian authorities are targeting several foreign audiences:
Belarusians and other nations in the region that hope for a peaceful transition of power.
While some experts state that Putin’s regime is learning from Belarus, the treatment of opponents in a “Belarus-like” way may actually be a message to its neighbors.
Belarusian exiled opposition figures, including ex-presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, have since August 2020 been sending signals about their readiness to talk to the Kremlin, or to include Russia in the dialogue on transition. The Belarusian authorities have initiated criminal cases against her and most of the top political figures who left the country, and the Kremlin has repeatedly said it did not recognize Tsikhanouskaya as the winner of the presidential election. Still, in November, she met with Russia’s UN envoy, Vasiliy Nebezenya, which gave credibility to rumors about silent diplomacy and the possibility of changing Russia’s position.
Jailing Navalny upon arrival and going after his supporters and online operation is a clear “no” to all such aspirations. Supporting exiled opposition in a neighboring state is too risky for Russia, as this would set a dangerous example internally. The treatment of Russian opposition and civil society is also a signal to citizens of Kazakhstan or other “Russki mir” countries that the Kremlin endorses strongmen and their ways of handling protests.
Supporters of anti-Western conspiracy theories.
One of the leading narrative spread by Kremlin globally, both in Russian language media and beyond, is that a “Western hand” controls Navalny and all of his supporters, and, by proxy, all other pro-democracy movements in the region. The Kremlin skillfully uses the fact that many media outlets, in both Europe and the United States, often uncritically republish its official statements.
In a January 26 interview, widely distributed by Reuters among others, Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s top security official said, “The West needs this figure to destabilize the situation in Russia, for social upheaval, strikes, and new Maidans.” The Kremlin-controlled Polish version of Sputnik is using a similar narrative: “The German government got confused in its policy towards Russia. As a result, it became a hostage of interests of one blogger [Navalny], who was planted by American and British special services, like a rotten egg.”
EU leaders and citizens.
By jailing Alexey Navalny, Russia is challenging the EU to muster a significant and meaningful pushback. For now, the response has been rather mild and timid. The controversial visit of EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to Moscow, still planned for February 4, is a sign that despite harsh repressions, the Kremlin remains a dialogue partner for Europe. This, combined with weak EU sanctions as a response to Navalny’s poisoning, sends a message that the EU is not willing to stand up for pro-democracy activists in the region. The persistent conflicts between EU member states, such as the unwillingness of Germany to align with France on freezing the Nord Stream 2 project, do not help either.
Moreover, some EU leaders such as Czech President Milos Zeman, are themselves questioning whether the West should support Navalny at all: “He is shown to us as a fighter for democracy, but I have read in the Monitor that he supported the annexation of Crimea, participated in nationalist marches, and supported Stalin’s deportations of Chechens.” The narrative about Navalny having fascist sympathies was earlier spread by such Kremlin proxies as RT.com.
The transatlantic community.
Russia knows that a coherent transatlantic response to this crisis is important beyond showing support for the democracy community. For the broader West, being able to demonstrate solidarity as a bloc in times like these is a sign of vigor and health. The lack of a single voice, the continuous search for excuses for why not to introduce sanctions, the unwillingness to treat Russian protests as something larger in scope than merely support for a single politician — all these telegraph weakness and undermine the credibility of the transatlantic alliance for members that feel more threatened by Russia. Similarly, bold statements not backed by any concrete actions underline the West’s powerlessness to democratically-inclined citizens on Europe’s Eastern borders, not only in Russia itself, but also in Belarus, Azerbaijan, or other autocracies.
It’s for these reasons that the fight over Navalny and the fate of democratic protests in Russia has tremendous symbolic weight — and the reason we can expect Moscow to redouble its efforts to strengthen its narratives. The Biden administration can and should be forthright in its own policies, while backing voices within the transatlantic alliance calling for a stop to the spiral of repressions in Russia and its neighborhood. Failing to do so will have long-term repercussions.