Western allies are finally realizing the Ukraine war won’t end until Vladimir Putin’s dreams of conquest are decisively defeated on the battlefield.
But that reality is forcing strategists to contemplate what might happen inside Russia if Putin can no longer hide his failures. Speculation ranges from his overthrow by associates to a Kremlin collapse to a surviving, sullen Putin.
Yet one thing is certain. If there is any small chance that a Russian defeat might open the door to positive political change, Putin must be prevented from murdering the country’s leading opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, whose health is sharply deteriorating as he is badly mistreated in prison.
He is being denied adequate medical care, family visits, or packages, and kept mainly in harsh solitary confinement, where he is not allowed to lie down from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. even though he is in severe pain with a fever.
Five hundred brave Russian doctors, nearly all of them still living inside their country, recently signed an open letter to Putin demanding that prison authorities stop “abusing” Navalny and preventing his access to vital medication.
So it is important for the White House, European leaders, and human rights organizations to keep the spotlight on Navalny’s plight and raise it at any meetings with Russian officials, especially Putin. They must stress that Putin will be held directly responsible should Navalny die in jail.
Putin detests the charismatic, handsome 44-year-old Navalny, who stands in stark contrast to the 70-year-old, puffy-faced autocrat. Isolated from the public, the aging Kremlin leader no doubt fears Navalny’s huge following across Russia, amassed even though his name is rarely if ever uttered on state-controlled TV channels.
Yet Navalny’s history shows what was once possible in Russian politics and hints at what might someday be possible again.
The opposition activist gained a wide following among young people with his long crusade against corruption amongst Kremlin leaders and cronies, and his use of social media, and humor, to expose them.
When he ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, using 20,000 young volunteers, he won more than 27% of the vote despite predictions he’d get only about 6%.
In 2017, when he tried to run for president, Navalny was the only Russian politician who toured nearly every region, a unique strategy for Russian leaders, who normally give stiff formal presentations in limited locations.
Green dye was thrown in Navalny’s face after a rally, nearly blinding one eye. He was banned from running for president, his brother was imprisoned as a hostage, and he was repeatedly jailed. Yet he continued building his mass movement.
When I asked him in 2018 if he feared he might be killed, he retorted, “Right now the cost is higher than they want,” but added with grim humor, “Maybe they are still saving this tool.”
That vicious tool was finally applied in 2020, when Russian intelligence agents tried to poison Navalny with a banned nerve agent after he addressed a rally in Siberia. Miraculously, a private plane sent from Germany managed to evacuate him to Berlin, where his life was saved and he underwent months of treatment. He returned to Russia in January 2021, as soon as he was well enough to travel.
He was jailed on bogus charges as soon as he reached the Moscow airport, and his supporters believe he’s unlikely to be released while Putin remains in power.
Western leaders must make clear to Putin that he will be held responsible for Navalny’s safety, which is a top priority for them. They should also attempt to bargain Navalny out of Russia before anything worse happens. The odds against him are harsh, yet Navalny remains the best hope for Russia after the Ukraine war ends.
Trudy Rubin is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.
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