MS Risk Blog

Putin Facing Serious Challenges in 2021

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to face some serious challenges in 2021 but it won’t be enough for a change of guards to take place. If Navalny wants to seize control of the country through a revolution of the street, he needs allies within the circles of the elite. Russian history and the successful “colour revolutions” in neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine illustrate this starkly. Considering the two most recent examples from Russia’s neighbours: Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. In both cases, though street protests played a big role in pressuring the change in regime, the protesters were abetted by the internal weakness of the regimes they were confronting. The same correlation is inexistant in Russia today. The security apparatus and the elite are firmly behind Putin.

The West has already started pressuring Kremlin to release Alexey Navalny who was jailed for 3 years after missing his probation, whilst ironically was in a coma recovering in Germany from a conspiracy to assassinate him by the Russian Security Services. Substantial evidence indicated that an FSB hit squad attempted to silence him. The same team was involved, according to Bellingcat, an open-source investigative platform, in 2020, in an attempt to assassinate Vladimir Kara-Murza, an outspoken politician against the Kremlin.

In the past, Kremlin opponents have been gunned down, poisoned or discredited in a bid to silence them. The Kremlin has always denied involvement, like in the case of Boris Nemtov (2015), Anna Politkovsakaya (2006), Alexander Litvinenko (2006), to name only a few from a long list of Kremlin opponents.

Navalny’s incarceration galvanized the biggest popular protests in Russia in nearly a decade. His supporters were joined across the country by average Russians upset with falling living standards and shrinking political freedoms. In response the Kremlin cracked down with brute force and more than 10,000 people were arrested across Russia.

For many years, Russia has been an unusual place for opposition politics. Despite dominating the messaging on traditional TV and (most) print media, the Kremlin has allowed a degree of free speech online. Navalny has taken advantage of this freedom, exposing high-level corruption first as a blogger and now as head of Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF). He and his team have produced voluminous reports and slickly produced viral videos detailing corruption at the highest levels of Russian politics. These videos have generated millions of clicks. But last year it appeared this uneasy truce between the Kremlin and its online opponents was breaking down. Putin’s approval ratings fell to historic lows amid a stagnating economy and the government’s dysfunctional response to COVID.

In addition, the Kremlin has ramped up its targeting of government critics and human rights groups by pushing its claims they are “foreign agents” and restricting their operations. Navalny and his ACF team have also faced growing harassment, and most are now in home arrests pending trials. With Navalny now facing a lengthy prison time, only one narrative is likely to emerge.

The narrative will be driven by the government which will seek to downplay Navalny’s symbolic importance. For his part, Putin still refuses to call Navalny by name and has recently referred to him as “the Berlin patient”. The official state media do mention Navalny, but they are increasingly characterising him as a Western agent intent on weakening Russia and unleashing revolutionary chaos. This image of Navalny fits with the Kremlin’s overall narrative that Russia is under threat from a hostile West seeking to undermine its stable development. If the Kremlin successfully paints Navalny as a foreign agent who will only bring instability to Russia, the jailed activist may retreat from public view. But if Navalny comes to symbolise unjust oppression in the face of an increasingly corrupt, unaccountable and incompetent political elite, popular pressure will only increase on the Russian government. All things considered it could take years for this alternative narrative to gather steam.

Navalny’s protests were not wholly in vain. His actions undermined an already unpopular regime heading into parliamentary elections in September and continue to mobilize a new generation of young Russians who have only ever known Putin and now are imagining a world without him. Perhaps gradually a new opposition will grow from these seeds. Yet this will take years, and there is no imminent colour revolution at hand.  The current regime is too resilient, protected by layers of security forces and aligned interests. Unlike its Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts, the increasingly professional Russian army has a history of crushing rebellions and in all likelihood will obey whatever orders it is given. Unless substantial figures within the current regime begin to defect to Navalny’s cause, the chance of street protest alone provoking a change of government is minimal. The day may come that the conditions are ripe for a change in regime, but there are no indications that time is here yet.