Navalny’s Return Has Thrown Putin Off Balance

The Russian regime isn’t handling the protests with its normal authoritarian aplomb.

Police detain protesters in Moscow
Police detain protesters gathered at Pushkin Square in Moscow on Jan. 23. Getty Images

On Jan. 23, Russia saw the largest and most widely distributed protests to take place in the country in the course of almost a decade. The Russians who came out to picket President Vladimir Putin’s regime were responding to calls to demonstrate issued by Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who had triumphantly returned to Russia in order to lead the protests after his earlier poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent.

When the day arrived, the protests that Navalny and his team had called for broke out at in at least 120 cities and towns all through the length and breadth of the Russian Federation. Navalny has demonstrated to the authorities, the Russian population, and the world that he has Russian citizens who are ready to march and protest for him and to be detained by riot police if need be. This was a victory for the opposition, if not a decisive one, not least because it showed the messiness and chaos of the regime’s response.

To be sure, protests with this level of militancy and vibrancy have not occurred in Russia in almost a decade, and they augur a new stage of conflict between the opposition and the authorities. The demonstrations paired large numbers of protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg with an unexpected—especially for the government—turnout in peripheral towns and regions, whose residents typically do not come out for protests emanating from Moscow. The gloomy atmosphere of the protests in the middle of winter signaled broad social dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. The new direction augurs a prolonged showdown between the Kremlin and a likely ratcheting up of the repressive actions taken by the state. There is a new spirit of protest unexpectedly prevalent in Russia, on the other hand. On-the-ground reporting and several studies and polls conducted during the rallies indicated that at least a third of the protesters were out in the streets for the first time in their lives.

Unlike many prior Russian opposition leaders, Navalny cannot now be accused of being a general without an army to lead. He turned out huge crowds in Russia’s frozen January weather, even in Siberian cities with sub-subzero temperatures. But transforming that momentum into a permanent political infrastructure to match the regime will be tricky.

While the vast majority of protests were peaceful, there was some violence–most of it started by the authorities. Numerous videos emerged of the riot police indiscriminately assaulting protesters. Other videos showed undaunted protesters retaliating with force against Russian security forces. Until this weekend, Russian protesters had not resisted, let alone fought the specialized units of crowd-controlling OMON riot police en masse at demonstrations.

Russian social media feeds filled up with videos of riot police beating protesters with truncheons. A video of a 10-year-old boy being apprehended by a burly senior police officer as the surrounding protesters screamed “He is just a kid!” caused widespread outrage. The process of detainment and the violence was pointedly random, with one video clip getting tremendous attention on social media showing a young woman weeping and begging a police officer not to arrest her boyfriend. A physically imposing young man gamely steps out of the crowd and asks, “Do you just need to make an arrest quota, bro? Take me instead.” The young police officer readily agrees to the offer and the crowd claps and cheers as the man is led away. The scene represented a powerful demonstration of the arbitrary nature of the law in Putin’s Russia—something that everyone is aware of but that is rarely pointed out so directly.

Though preliminary figures vary, it seems certain that several thousand protesters were detained across the country—rights organizations and analysts are still in the process of tabulating results for how many exactly were being held, but the number is likely to be around 3,500. For the Kremlin, the political risk is of events developing in the same direction as in neighboring Belarus, which has by this point seen a monthslong stand-off between the government and the opposition. As in Belarus, there may be too many protesters to arrest—but the government is too entrenched to overthrow. The damage had already been done.

The government’s response has not been anywhere as smooth as normal. Navalny’s video exposure of Putin’s alleged “palace,” a vast and tasteless building, put his foe on the spot. Putin was forced into the embarrassing position of claiming that he did not have the time to watch Navalny’s 90-minute investigation, which has reached more than 100 million views on YouTube just over a week after its publication. In a legalistically worded denial that called the video a brainwashing operation, Putin emphatically denied that either he or his “close relatives” had “ever owned the property.” Based on the details of the complex shell company structure revealed by Navalny’s investigation into the ownership of the palace, that would be technically true enough.

The emphasis on corruption was a shrewd decision by Navalny and his team to focus on the rage toward inequality in Russia.

On Wednesday, Putin obliquely responded to Navalny’s investigation of his wealth by addressing the issue of income inequality during a speech that he delivered via Zoom at the annual World Economic Forum. Putin warned of a possible “war of all against all.” Meanwhile, the Russian police raided the apartments of Navalny’s family and close associates.

The protests will also certainly not keep Navalny from being handed a prison sentence, though the exact length of the jail term handed down from the Kremlin will send a signal about Putin’s intentions. A shorter sentence will be seen as a signal of soothing potential compromise with the opposition. But Russia’s leaders, who are critically concerned with the optics of not looking weak and not being seen to give in to street protests in making their decisions, even as they care very much about opinion polls, will doubtlessly double down on renewed repression of some sort in the near future. Opposition leaders and Navalny’s associates have called for more protests this weekend, just as the government prepares to make a formal decision on Navalny’s prison sentence.

A deep sense that Putin’s government is beset by a certain amount of sclerotic brittleness is difficult to avoid, and the protests are surely a bad sign for the Kremlin as it prepares for this September’s parliamentary elections. The Kremlin’s perennial goal of having Putin’s Russia United party keep an outright two-thirds majority seems unlikely if events continue to develop in this manner, and the government may very well conclude that it needs to engage in more explicit ballot stuffing or systematic cheating than it would like to. This would, of course, continue the process of degrading its public legitimacy. The Kremlin is now trapped in the usual authoritarian dilemma of whether to risk a ratcheting up of the cycle of political polarization through the escalation of systemic violence or to risk increased protests and a revealed preference cascade by signaling weakness. Navalny’s return to Moscow has upended all previous calculations, on all sides.

Vladislav Davidzon is a writer, journalist and artist who has reported extensively from Ukraine. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review.