As Putin Flounders, the Next Russian Revolution Quietly Gains Steam

Alexei Navalny may be in prison, but his hushed voice is being loudly heard.

AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file
The Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, on video at Moscow City Court in May 2022. AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko, file

While Elon Musk was busy in recent days sparring with President Zelensky,  something else dropped on Twitter: “We are reopening Navalny’s Headquarters. Against Putin, war, and mobilization,” tweeted Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for Vladimir Putin’s chief domestic rival, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Mr. Putin need not worry about an instant revolution because Mr. Navalny is currently languishing in a Russian prison, serving a nine-year sentence for what are widely perceived to be spurious charges. In 2020 he was poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent, most likely administered by agents of Russia’s federal security service, the FSB. His Russia of the Future party exists mostly on paper. 

With more than 6 million YouTube subscribers and close to 3 million followers on Twitter, however, Mr. Navalny’s hushed voice is still loudly heard. He has called United Russia, a rubber-stamp party for Mr. Putin in the State Duma,  a “party of crooks and thieves,” and that is the kind of verbiage that keeps his supporters on their toes. According to The Moscow Times, his political network at one point had 50 regional headquarters across Russia, but a Moscow court branded it  an “extremist” group last year, which led to its dissolution. 

The present debacle in Ukraine, and in particular Mr. Putin’s deeply unpopular call for partial mobilization, is galvanizing the only serious Russian opposition to Mr. Putin’s lock on the Kremlin.

In a video that accompanied the tweet, the former director of Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Ivan Zhdanov, said that “It’s time for us to restore our network to fight mobilization and war.” Mr. Volkov said that, “Putin has brought war and suffering to every Russian family in every home.” 

Messrs. Zhdanov and Volkov, currently in exile, said that the new group, or rather regrouping, will be a “partisan movement” that will operate inside Russia. As that coalesces, they called on Russian citizens to resist the Kremlin.

“The fight can take on a variety of different forms and extremes,” Mr. Volkov said. “You can spread information, provide legal assistance, volunteer, or sabotage the work of military enlistment offices.”

Some military enlistment offices in Russia have already been sabotaged (some have been set on fire). It is not clear what role, if any, Mr. Navalny’s supporters might have had in those efforts. It is, though, likely that such acts of resistance will continue. Also worth noting amid the avalanche of reports about weapons systems, nuclear saber-rattling, and troop call-ups is that  there is a spiritual dimension to the Russian character, too.

Ideas, as well as actions, have led to revolution in Russia before. The former just take longer to percolate. In this respect the Kremlin’s crackdown on a free press since the invasion of Ukraine is almost immaterial — the messages will still come through via social media, and possibly by other means.

In the meantime, the fact that the 46-year-old Mr. Navalny is still alive is likely a combination of the medical care he received in Germany to ease his recovery from the poisoning, his Russian fortitude, and dumb luck.

While Mr. Putin has been known to eliminate his domestic foes with the efficiency of a lawnmower, the fact that Mr. Navalny is still standing could also evince in Mr. Putin a twinge of fear, because Mr. Putin knows the uproar after Mr. Navalny’s demise could be unstoppable. Despite the Kremlin’s crackdowns on parliamentary opposition in recent years, Mr. Navalny’s movement held firm.

With the opposition figure “safely” in jail, Mr. Putin does have one less distraction as he presses the gas pedal on Ukraine. Doubling down on his land grabs, the Russian leader signed a bill at Moscow Wednesday finalizing the deed. This is happening, though, against the backdrop of one astonishing Ukrainian routing of Russian forces after another — in the very regions that Moscow claims to have successfully annexed. 

Mr. Putin’s Kremlin camarilla is playing along for now, but beyond Moscow the mobilization effort is swiftly becoming either a tragedy or a  joke, depending on how one looks at it. At Sakhalin Island, Russian enlistment officers are presently offering families fresh fish in exchange for fresh conscripts.

The Times of London reported that the regional chief of President Putin’s ruling faction has promised islanders “11 pounds of flounder, pollock, and salmon” in exchange for sending their young men to a war that by most estimations has already killed more than 50,000 Russian soldiers.

Everyone loves a fresh salmon dinner, but a few good meals cannot obscure the fact that the ground is beginning to shift, not just in Ukraine but also beneath Vladimir Putin’s feet. If Alexei Navalny can capitalize on those movements, even in absentia, the Russian leader may soon find that some of his most formidable foes speak fluent Russian, and may have well and truly had their fill.

The New York Sun

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