Is Navalny’s Wife Taking Up His Baton?

No, Yulia Navalnaya’s purported political career seems to be another Kremlin misinformation op.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's wife Yulia Navalnaya
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's wife Yulia Navalnaya (center) is seen surrounded by people as she leaves Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Jan. 17. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

After Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok last year, his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was thrust into the international limelight as she fought to have her husband flown to Germany for lifesaving treatment. Her poise and courage in the face of immense pressure has led to Navalnaya developing a following of her own. And with her husband now sentenced to spend almost three years in a penal colony for violating the terms of his probation for a trumped-up charge, the Russian and Western press alike have begun to speculate as to whether the first lady of the Russian opposition may take up her husband’s mantle and run in legislative elections later this year.

Here’s the problem: The whole idea may have started with a misinformation plant by Russia. 

The first suggestion that Navalnaya might run for office appeared in November 2020 while Navalny was still recuperating in Germany. A German news site called Abendlich Hamburg published an explosive report claiming that Navalny’s alleged Western handlers had conducted a secretive poll and, upon finding that his popularity was waning, had decided instead to back his wife to run in parliamentary elections in September of this year. The report was quickly picked up by Kremlin-friendly media in Russia.

There was, however, one important catch: Abendlich Hamburg was a fake.

An investigation by German newspaper Die Zeit found that the site was originally hosted on Russian servers, and its social media channels were established only a few months earlier and had few followers. The article about Navalnaya’s political future was written in clumsy German, and many of the other articles on the site were copied directly from the German-language site of the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT. Germany’s media watchdog and the German Journalists Association told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that they’d never heard of Abendlich Hamburg. By December, the site had disappeared from the internet altogether. 

It seems a textbook case of disinformation laundering, which dates back to the Cold War: plant a story on an obscure media outlet and have it picked up and reported as fact by media loyal to the Kremlin, safe in the knowledge that few readers will scrutinize the original source. Similar tactics have been used by Russian operatives to seed fake news stories in the Western media. 

“It’s a technique the Russians are very good at, and it has now been mainstreamed by many other actors, state-backed and otherwise,” said Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy. 

In an interview with the Russian edition of Harper’s Bazaar, Navalnaya—who rarely speaks to the press—denied that she had any plans to go into politics. “It’s much more interesting to be the wife of a politician. Also, what I’m doing in my place is politics to some extent,” said Navalnaya, who reportedly flew to Germany last week. 

Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, also denied that she had any immediate political ambitions. “There is not much to all this fuss. Yulia does not have plans to run for office,” he said.

As is often the case in Russia, some see a trail of breadcrumbs leading back to the Kremlin’s spin doctors. 

“I think the people who are spreading these rumors want to move the agenda to her from Alexey, and solidify in public opinion the thought that Alexey will never run for office,” Ashurkov said. “We remain committed to him as the leader of our organization and our candidate. It’s just as simple as that.” 

As with other Russian information campaigns, it’s hard to definitively trace the story back to the Kremlin. Some Russian disinformation efforts take the form of what’s been described as a “firehose of falsehood,” which are easier to attribute. “The challenge of course is the ones which are seeded very selectively, which I think they then hope pick up momentum on their own,” Schafer said. 

Short-lived as it was, Abendlich Hamburg served its purpose. Russian media quickly began to ask whether Navalnaya could become Russia’s Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a reference to the Belarusian opposition leader, who took up the mantle of her jailed husband’s presidential campaign and mounted the strongest challenge yet to longtime President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Last week an association of businesses loyal to the Kremlin called for Russian laws to be amended to prevent the relatives of people branded “foreign agents” from running for office in order to prevent a “Belarus scenario” from playing out. The proposal has not been submitted to the legislature yet, but the chairman of the Russian parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, has already signaled his support for the move. “We share the position that individuals who are engaged by other governments must not be allowed to participate in elections,” he said.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was branded a “foreign agent” in 2019 under a controversial Russian law that slaps punitive measures on entities that receive overseas funding. At the time, Navalny’s spokeswoman denied the fund had ever received foreign donations. 

Why might the Kremlin start such a rumor about Navalnaya? Perhaps to divide support for Navalny, Russia’s most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, whose anti-corruption investigations have brought protesters out into the streets in towns and cities across the country. With Russia seeing a spate of anti-Putin protests nationwide, one theory is that propping up his wife could undermine support for the Kremlin foe. “The political career of Yulia Navalnaya is a well-calculated canard. Forget about ‘bad Navalny’ and focus on his ‘good wife,’” is how Wonderzine, a Russian magazine, put it.

To be sure, not everyone who has hoped Navalnaya might go into politics is a Kremlin lackey. A protest in solidarity with Navalnaya and the wives of Russia’s growing number of political prisoners was held in Moscow on Valentine’s Day. A trained economist, popular in her own right, and able to maintain her cool under intense pressure, Navalnaya has the makings of a good politician.

But the episode underscores how even seemingly innocuous ideas can unwittingly play into the hands of the Kremlin’s skilled propagandists.

As Wonderzine’s Yulia Taratuta put it, “The line between genuine personal excitement and unwitting participation in a propaganda campaign is blurred. And you are already falling through thin ice,” she wrote. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Tag: Russia