An pro-Navalny protester in action. Photo: AFP

As thousands of demonstrators across Russia were protesting against the arrest of detained dissident democratic leader Alexei Navalny, Russia Today, one of the Kremlin’s propaganda TV arms, broadcast a documentary on the 2014 anti-Moscow uprising in Ukraine.

The juxtaposition was indicative of one of President Vladimir Putin’s apparent fears – that mass street protests might bring his government down, as they did the regimes in Ukraine in 2014, Egypt in 2011 and Georgia in 2003.

Add in the recent, yet inconclusive, mass-movement turmoil next door in Belarus, and one can see why Putin may be having nightmares about political contagion.

And the Russian strongman may harbor even more painful memories. When he was still a KGB officer in East Germany, public protests brought down government after government across the Warsaw Pact, ending the Soviet Union’s hold on its satellites.

Putin has frequently warned Russians that civil uprisings bring only chaos and that they are promoted by dark foreign powers trying to undermine Russia. He has called them extremist and “a geopolitical instrument … for remaking spheres of influence.” To be entirely clear, he once said: “We should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia.”

In line with those assessments, Russia Today’s Ukraine documentary featured hidden rebel snipers, neo-Nazis and sneaky US officials.

A woman walks in front of riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on January 31, 2021. Photo: AFP/Nemenov

Seething streets

For the second week in a row, across the breadth of the world’s largest country, Sunday’s demonstrations filled snowy streets from the Pacific to the Baltic. In town after town, marchers chanted “Putin’s a thief” and “We are the power.” Legions of armored riot police monitored the protests and blocked streets to parks and plazas where crowds sought to gather.

Demonstrators were especially numerous in Moscow, where police blocked off access to the city center around the Kremlin, and in St Petersburg, where large numbers marched toward Senate Square and the iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great.

By sunset, police had detained more than 4,500 demonstrators, including almost 1,500 in Moscow alone.

The protests follow an attempted assassination by poison of Navalny last summer. He survived, convalesced in Germany and then returned to Moscow on January 17. He blamed Putin for the poisoning.

Police promptly arrested him upon arrival at Sheremyetovo Airport and arraigned him later for parole violations from a previous arrest. Although by law, parolees are allowed to be absent if they are getting over a sickness, Navalny stands accused of failing to report in person to parole officers promptly after his poisoning.

That happened despite the protestations of his medics. Two days before Navalny’s arrival in Russia, Berlin’s Charite Hospital, the institution that treated him, informed Moscow authorities that Navalny had been ill, that he had been convalescing all the time he was in Germany and had been unfit to return.

No matter. Navalny could spend three and a half years in prison for parole violations. That timetable would permit Putin to hold parliamentary elections this September without Navalny leading the opposition and keep the opposition hopeful safely out of the way in 2024, when presidential elections take place.

Man with a mission

Before leaving Berlin, Navalny’s advisors warned him he would be arrested when he set foot on Russian soil. Navalny insisted he needed to go back. He wanted to avoid the example of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarussian presidential candidate who fled her country during protests against the apparently fraudulent re-election of Alexander Lukashenko last August.

 Lukashenko has ruled the country for 25 years. He remains in power.

“Navalny sees himself as a politician,” said a close associate. “A politician cannot operate outside his country.”

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency

Navalny focuses his anti-Putin campaign on Russia’s endemic corruption. Before returning to Moscow, he narrated a two-hour YouTube video about the construction of a sumptuous palace on the Black Sea.

It cost more than one billion dollars, Navalny estimated, and he insisted it belonged to Putin. Russia has a population of 144 million, and at the time of writing, the video had been watched by 105 million people.

Navalny is no western liberal. He takes care to campaign as a Russian nationalist, even going so far, several years ago, to oppose Central Asian immigration and make racist remarks about citizens from Russia’s turbulent Caucasus.

Defenders say he has left such attitudes behind, and in any case nationalism in Russia is virtually mandatory. For Navalny, it helps insulate him from Putin’s accusations that he is a tool of the West.

So where does the Navalny movement go? For any success – even the minimum goal of getting him out of jail – the protests must have staying power.

No wobbles yet

Sustained pressure might just persuade Russia’s powers-that-be that they would be better off without the long-serving Putin as boss. Maybe they would make a move toward real democracy to calm the streets.

Power players include the apparatus that surrounds Putin – the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), which is the successor to the KGB, the military chiefs of staff, the Kremlin’s presidential administration and the constellation of major businesses and banks that control much of Russia’s economy.

But Putin has outlasted a variety of protest movements since taking power in 2000. From jail, Navalny called for another round of protests Tuesday, the day of his next court appearance. Russia’s powerful might fear that jettisoning Putin would weaken their position – after all, they owe their positions, and in many cases vast wealth, to Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks on the phone before a meeting on the situation with the spread of the coronavirus disease in Russia, via teleconference call at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, Russia. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik via AFP

Outside pressure on Putin is a mixed bag. China is and will remain his ally. Last year, China’s Xi Jinping tamed a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. He will not turn around and boost one in Russia.

For the West, it’s tricky. The US and Europe could impose further economic sanctions, but Navalny backers suggest that anything that harms the wider Russian economy would be counter-productive. Instead, they suggest the West opt for sanctions on very rich Putin associates, freeze their foreign assets and seize their property abroad.

For the moment, there are clues as to what the West may do. On Sunday, the new Joe Biden administration demanded Navalny’s release from prison and a stop to the abuse of protesters, but has not come up with a sanctions regime. Predictably, Russia’s foreign ministry called Washington’s criticism a “crude interference in Russia’s internal affairs.”

So far, Europe has only pronounced frowning expressions of concern.

As for Putin, he will likely try to outlast the protesters and especially try to avoid killing any. A crackdown with fatalities might rile up the indifferent among Russia’s population or even his supporters.

For now, if Belarus is a guide, Putin may win out.

A woman takes pictures with her smartphone standing in front of law enforcement officers during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on January 31, 2021. Photo: AFP/Natalia Kolesnikova

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.