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Putin’s Mission Accomplished: Alexey Navalny is Dead 

Navalny’s death proves that no serious political force can challenge the Kremlin’s dictator – but it seriously undermines Russia’s image in the world

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, detained upon arrival at Sheremetyevo International Airport on January 17 2021. Photo: Sergei Bobylev/TASS

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“If Russian special services had wanted to kill Alexey Navalny, they would have finished the job”, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in December 2020, following the poisoning of the Kremlin critic and former political rival Alexei Navalny.

Three and a half years after Navalny barely survived poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent, the opposition figure died under suspicious circumstances in a penal colony in Russia’s remote, far north Urals region on February 16, 2024.

Navalny, often seen as one of the leaders of the Russian liberal opposition, had been behind bars since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow from Germany where he was on rehabilitation after a poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin.

He was arrested shortly after his flight landed at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, and was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges including “extremism”.

Before his arrest, he campaigned against corruption, ran for public office, and organized several major anti-Kremlin protests. Now that he is dead, some of his supporters might dare to come out to the streets of Moscow, and other Russian cities, where they risk being arrested, and potentially even mobilized and sent to fight in Ukraine.

Indeed, since 2014, holding protests without authorities’ permission is punishable by a fine or detention of up to 15 days, or up to five years in prison if it is the third breach. Thus, any large-scale demonstrations in Russia do not seem very probable under the current circumstances. More importantly, at this point, there is no political force in Russia that can pose a serious threat to Putin.

Navalny’s death will, however, undoubtedly have a serious impact on Putin’s image in the West. His recent interview with Tucker Carlson seems to have been the Russian leader’s attempt to look attractive in the eyes of Donald Trump supporters in the United States. But now that his major critic is dead, pro-Kremlin propaganda, both in Russia and abroad, will have to work really hard to whitewash the Russian President’s policy regarding the opposition.

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Repression and Murder

The Kremlin has a history of silencing any form of criticism of Putin and Russia’s ruling elite. Since 1999, when Putin first came to power, several Kremlin critics have been shot dead. In 2003, Sergei Yushenkov, a leader of the anti-Kremlin party Liberal Russia, was shot in front of his Moscow home. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya Gazeta journalist, was killed outside her apartment in the Russian capital. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader, was assassinated close to the Kremlin walls. 

During the Donbas war 2014-2022, several Russian-backed commanders – Aleksey Mozgovoy, Alexander Zakharchenko, Arsen Pavlov, Alexander Bednov, Pavel Dryomov, among others – known for being critical towards the Kremlin, were mysteriously killed. Finally, in August 2023, the Wagner Group frontman Yevgeny Prigozhin died in a plane crash, following his failed mutiny. 

Thus, in Putin’s Russia, being the Kremlin critic, or being labeled as a “traitor”, can be very dangerous. Navalny learned that back in 2011, after he faced criminal charges for “inflicting material damage by means of deceit”, although in reality he might have been prosecuted for describing Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, as a “party of crooks and thieves“.

Ever since, he was often portrayed by the pro-Kremlin propaganda as a far-right Russian nationalist, as well as an anti-Muslim, and anti-migrant extremist. His arrest, one year before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, could be interpreted as Moscow’s preparation for the war with the neighboring country. With Navalny behind bars, there was nobody in Russia to mobilize thousands of people to participate in anti-war protests.

But the Kremlin also put some pro-war figures in prison. Sergei Udaltsov, a Russian pro-war activist and leader of the Left Front, a group of political parties that oppose Putin and are affiliated with certain factions of the Communist Party, was recently detained and charged with “justifying terrorism” in social media posts. On January 25, Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov – a prominent Russian nationalist who accuses Putin and the army top brass of not pursuing the Ukraine war effectively enough – was sentenced to four years in prison. 

In an interview to the Russian media Baza in December 2023, Girin, who is responsible for the war that broke out in 2014, said that his greatest fear is that he could be “amnestied” the same way as Yevgeny Prigozhin. Does that mean that Strelkov could soon have the same fate as Navalny?

As the American whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was granted asylum in Russia, wrote on Twitter in January 2021 following the arrest of Navalny, “systems that cannot accept dissent will not survive”. In the short-term, however, Navalny’s death is unlikely to have an impact on Putin, who will undoubtedly win the presidential election scheduled for 15–17 March.  

As the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in August 2023, the Russian presidential poll “is not really democracy, but costly bureaucracy”. Thus, Navalny’s death will not affect Putin’s ambitions to stay in power until 2036. In the meantime, Russian authorities will intensify repression against anyone who dares to criticize Putin and the country’s leadership.

Alexey Navalny is unlikely the last victim of Putin’s political system.

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