Putin's biggest fear
July-September 2017
By: Stratfor

The next move for Navalny’s movement is to increase cooperation with other dissenting groups. A string of protests took place across Russia recently, including those by truckers objecting to increased taxes, Muscovites railing against housing demolition and tradespeople unhappy with salary cuts. Some of the Muscovite protesters joined the June 12 demonstrations. Rival opposition leader (and sometimes critic) Mikhail Khodorkovsky has thrown his weight behind Navalny, raising money for those arrested during the protests. The more allegiances Navalny’s movement has, the stronger it will become. And if it can harness support from a systemic party with a presence in the Duma, such as the Communist Party, the collaboration could pose a genuine challenge to the Kremlin. Like Navalny’s group, the Communist Party has been revitalized by a more youthful, savvier generation, and young party leader Andrei Klychkov has already provided his rhetorical support for Navalny’s crusade.

The growth of Navalny’s broad-reaching opposition movement does not mean the Kremlin has no options, however. During the June 12 protests, Russian security services arrested about 1,000 demonstrators in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. In addition to the security crackdown, the Kremlin has been implementing tougher Internet restrictions, which could hamper social media coordination and pinpoint protest organizers. And despite his growing popularity, Navalny still is not strong enough or well-known enough to defeat Putin in a theoretical head-to-head matchup in 2018. But the wide-reaching discontent at the center of Navalny’s movement is a sign of things to come, and the Kremlin knows it. As its system continues to atrophy, Putin’s administration has not yet figured out how to address the challenges it will one day face.

The West sees a beacon

The Western media watched Russia’s most recent mass protests with glee. As Moscow continues to act aggressively abroad, the West will support any potential reformist challengers to Putin’s power at home. Western nations, especially the United States, were a visible force in the 2011-12 protests, which saw Western officials meeting opposition leaders, providing financial assistance and attending rallies. The current movement has so far not attracted a similar amount of tangible Western support, though the media has certainly held up Navalny as a pillar of democratic values. Even as early as 2012, The Wall Street Journal described him as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most.”

But Navalny is far from a pro-Western champion. Not only is he highly anti-Muslim and anti-migrant, he is also just as nationalistic about Russia as Putin. Moreover, Navalny aligns with Putin in the area of foreign policy, with both men wanting Russia to be the center of the region. Unlike those in other Russian opposition groups, Navalny has given no indication that he’s willing to work with the West or accept Western support in any way. The West and Navalny are not completely out of step with one another, particularly in wanting reform in Putin’s regime. But with Navalny as the head of the leading opposition movement, shifts in the Kremlin are set to be spurred by those from within Russia and not outside it.

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