Prevent Putin from enabling the prison death of ill opposition leader

by Trudy Rubin

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%. (If it had been a fair election, his count would no doubt have been far higher.)

Navalny was fascinated at how U.S. politicians brought their campaigns to the public, says Yevgenia Albats, a leading Russian scholar and independent journalist, and close friend of Navalny’s. “When he ran for mayor, he watched the [HBO series] The Wire and learned from the race for Baltimore mayor how to do it,” she told me. “He put chairs for old ladies at his rallies, and if it was raining he got umbrellas. People saw he showed respect.”

When I visited Navalny’s sleek, spare office in 2018, far from Moscow’s city center, he told me, “Our main tool became YouTube because it attracts more younger people, blue-collar youth, not hipsters, youth who see no future.”

The brilliant 2017 YouTube video put out by his Anti-Corruption Foundation on then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s ill-gotten mansions, yachts and vineyard drew 27 million views and inspired tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities, towns and villages. (A

2021 video about Putin’s sprawling secret palace garnered 92 million views and was issued even though Navalny was in jail.)

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. “He is capable of appealing to people on the street,” said Albats, now in New York City. “His constituency was the 18- to 35-year-old age group, who consider Putin grandpa. That’s what Putin realized.”

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.

Why did he return? I asked Albats, who manages to exchange messages with Navalny in prison. “He knew he could not be a Russian politician who asks people to protest if he was living in the luxury of Germany,” she answered quickly.

“Putin is still afraid of him,” she added. “He does understand, if anyone is capable of uniting people, it is him.”

Navalny’s team continues to work from exile in Lithuania, and he manages to smuggle tweets out; he is allowed to send censored mail.  

Given the consequences of a failing war, however, Albats is worried Putin may envision a worse fate for his enemy in jail.

“Putin will try to break him,” she said. As Russia’s military position worsens, she fears Putin may give the orders for Navalny to conveniently “die” in his cell.

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 columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: trubin@phillynews.com.