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Russia in the Era of Navalny and Biden

Russia in the Era of Navalny and Biden
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Alexei Navalny’s personality, along with his return to Moscow on January 17, five months after surviving a poisoning attempt, has captured the Western imagination. During those five months, he had managed, through a skilful genuine/fake investigation, to ridicule those who attempted to assassinate him. His return testifies to both his astonishing courage and an uncommon determination.

As expected, Navalny was arrested as soon as he got off the plane. He is fully aware of what he can expect: prolonged detention like Mikhail Khodorkovsky or, worse still, a new death sentence. The removal of opponents-from journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former liberal minister Boris Nemtsov to many other lesser-known "troublemakers" - dominates the story of Putin’s Russia.

How does this 44-year-old lawyer explain his willingness to take up the fight in Russia itself? Of course, he knows that by remaining in exile, he would have condemned himself to marginalization. He also knows he can count on a certain degree of protection thanks to his international notoriety, making his assasination attempt more problematic. He has built a remarkably effective organization to support his work in the fight against corruption and is undoubtedly encouraged by the audience he has managed to gain among some Russian urban and middle-class youth. The major "Free Navalny" demonstrations in dozens of cities over the last two weekends of January attest to the magnitude of his support. Moreover, the "Putin’s Palace" video he released to coincide with his return received over a hundred million views, suggesting it could well have been viewed by Russia’s entire adult population. 

[Navalny] is fully aware of what he can expect: prolonged detention like Mikhail Khodorkovsky or, worse still, a new death sentence.

In the midst of this Russian drama, what we can see playing out is almost a personal duel between an ageing Tsar and a young, brilliant, self-confident, patriotic (Navalny approved of the Crimean annexation) individual. It pits the Russia of YouTube against the Russia presented on official television-a united Russia against the corrupt network that formed around Putin in 1990s St. Petersburg. In the mirror that Navalny holds up to Russia, Putin is no longer the all-powerful leader of the fatherland, but instead, a rather uncomfortable man forced to appear in a video, wearing plain clothing and in a modest setting, denying any interest in (or ownership of) beautiful homes.

The disorder of the 1990s is no longer of concern to younger Russians; the magic of Crimea’s liberator is fading away, eroded by today’s immense difficulties . This is what Navalny and his Foundation Against Corruption are attempting to exploit. 

To most outside observers, the chances of the "Berlin patient" turning the country’s economic and social discontent into a political groundswell appear limited. But Navalny undoubtedly belongs to that category of men who believe in sacrificial action and whose fate sometimes coincide with historical movements of great magnitude.

Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn particularly come to mind here. Much like under Brezhnev, Russia is currently going through a stagnation period. The lack of reform over the years has sapped the economy of any dynamism. The Covid-19 crisis-with a reported 180,000 deaths to date-has accentuated a deep social malaise. Unable or reluctant to settle the matter of his succession, Putin’s primary goals are to reach the legislative elections of 2021 and, even more importantly, the presidential elections of 2024, in a strong position. At all costs, he wants to avoid any repeat of the 2011-2012 demonstrations that tarnished his second presidential term.

Historical precedents, however, have their limits. Social networks provide channels for protests that are vastly different from those Soviet dissidents could access. The Brezhnev regime had somewhat retreated from the use of violence against the population, but it is quite the opposite with Putin, whose regime has only been getting tougher since the New Year - perhaps inspired by the recent approach of the Chinese government. In particular, the regime is tightening its control over a Russian internet that was previously relatively free, unlike the Chinese system, which is almost entirely under state control. Additionally, in Brezhnev’s era, the Kremlin was serious about improving the country’s image internationally, which served to benefit some dissidents. In contrast, after the 2011-12 demonstrations, Putin regained legitimacy among Russians through his confrontational attitude with the West, the annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Syria. 

In the current context, how much of a role will international relations play? This is where Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House comes into focus. 

The two presidents had a telephone conversation on January 26, when they both agreed to a five-year extension of the START strategic arms limitation treaty. This decision was ratified by both chambers of the Russian Federal Assembly within a few hours. With the extension of START, the return of a strategic dialogue between Moscow and Washington now looks possible-which is certainly a source of relief to the Kremlin. From Moscow’s viewpoint, their relationship with the United States remains the primary yardstick by which to judge Russia’s status in the world. 

During their discussion, President Biden also raised some of America’s grievances: cyber-attacks, especially the severe SOLARWINDS attack at the end of last year, electoral interference, Afghanistan and Ukraine. He referred to Navalny’s case and spoke of his intent to adopt a considerably more active stance regarding human rights than the one adopted by Donald Trump. Indeed, one of the first steps taken by the Biden administration was to launch an investigation into Russian interference in the United States.

The return of a strategic dialogue between Moscow and Washington now looks possible-which is certainly a source of relief to the Kremlin.

One might think that Putin is seeking an improvement in his relationship with Washington.

One of the reasons for this is that in light of the current domestic situation, the option of new "external adventures" is not as feasible as it was in 2014 and 2015: the Russian public is clearly tiring of the interventions in the Donbas, Syria and elsewhere. In his conversation with Biden, the Russian President proposed broadening their strategic dialogue (to include cyber, counterterrorism and meetings of the P5) and relaunching economic ties through the creation of a "council of businessmen" (which would presuppose the prior release of American businessman Michael Calvey, who was arbitrarily indicted along with Frenchman Philippe Delpal in the Baring Vostok case).

President Biden’s response to these matters, according to American sources, was one of waiting and seeing. The Americans are expected to move towards a "tough" policy towards Russia, particularly after last December’s cyberattacks further increased anti-Russian sentiment in Washington. However, Biden’s Russia policy may offer the chance for a genuine dialogue with Moscow. After all, in their attempts to implement a "grand strategy" towards China, the Americans cannot wholly ignore Russia.

What lines can be drawn between the "Navalny affair" and a possible revival of the Russian-American dialogue? 

  • If Putin does indeed take account of domestic difficulties when formulating his foreign policy - hypothesis that certainly remains to be verified -it means that the US, and even the West as a whole, have some degree of leverage over the development of the Russian regime. Experience has shown the Americans that too rigid an emphasis on human rights issues can be counter-productive, such as with the Jackson-Vanik amendment (1974) and Jewish emigration from the USSR:the amendment made it more difficult for the Soviet government to allow emigres, as it made them appear forced to adopt a policy that it was already prepared to carry out, albeit discreetly. 
  • Therefore, it is urgently important that the Western nations ask themselves what specific objectives they can set and how to achieve them. This is all the more necessary since the question of new sanctions will eventually arise. We emphasize the importance of maintaining a high degree of mobilization in Western countries to provide protection for both Navalny and his supporters. Beyond this primary objective, should Western policy try to halt the increasingly authoritarian drift of Putin’s regime in specific areas, such as Internet governance,freedom of expression and protest? If this is not deemed realistic, what should be our aims? 
  • When defining Western policy, the fight against corruption, central to Navalny’s platform, must figure prominently. Along with related issues-such as combating the influence of dirty money-this topic will undoubtedly be on the agenda for the Biden administration’s democracy summit project. The issue of corruption is central to many areas of the Russia-Western relationship. In this sense, the Nord-Stream II project now being in the spotlight more than ever after Navalny revealed Nord-Stream’s CEO, Matthias Warnig, was a former Stasi officer and had been involved in various corrupt schemes with Putin dating back to his time in Dresden is telling.
  • What links should there be between American and European policies? It should be remembered that the European reaction to Navalny’s poisoning was much stronger than that of Trump’s, and the new Biden administration is more in line with the European approach. However, priorities and policies will likely continue to diverge on both sides of the Atlantic. What remains most important is that there should be full strategic coordination regarding the relationship with Russia.

Lastly, questions continue to be raised over President Macron’s rather poorly calibrated policy initiative towards Russia. The prevailing analysis in France is that it has failed and should now be withdrawn; however, we don’t entirely agree with that. On the one hand, any expert on Russian affairs knew from the outset that France could not make Putin’s Russia shift on its own. But on the other hand, perhaps the real test of the initiative begins now: one of the questions that have arisen recently concerns the channels that make it possible to have at least some influence on the Russian leaders’ calculations. It is clear that Vladimir Putin and his colleagues are only interested in what originates from Washington, and perhaps occasionally from Berlin. But if the Americans and Europeans are working together again, a diversification of those channels may prove useful. 


Copyright: Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP

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