Vladimir Putin, riding high before Navalny’s death, seems unstoppable

Vladimir Putin, riding high before Navalny’s death, seems unstoppable


When Russian prison authorities announced the death of Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s most potent political opponent, the Russian president appeared to be overflowing with cheer.

Addressing a group of workers and students at a machinery plant in the Russian industrial city of Chelyabinsk on Friday, a smiling Putin, unsurprisingly, made no mention of Navalny’s death in a faraway Arctic prison and instead professed himself to be satisfied at the technological progress he had just seen.

“Forward! Success! To new borders!” Putin declared to one young worker who had proclaimed her admiration for the president.

With Navalny’s demise at age 47, further military assistance for Ukraine still blocked in Congress and Ukrainian forces retreating on the battlefield, a lot seems to be going Putin’s way, a month ahead of a presidential election in Russia that he is certain to win.

Before the trip to Chelyabinsk, Putin was already riding high off an obsequious interview last week with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Even sanctions imposed by “our quasi-partners,” Putin boasted Friday, had resulted in a boost in orders for the plant that he was visiting.

Putin is now “outside of any competition,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior research fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

Navalny’s death not only removes a major — if distant — political thorn. It also is one more development that puts Putin’s potential detractors on notice.

Last summer, the swift and demonstrative downing of a jet carrying Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Wagner mercenary commander who led a mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, sent a chilling signal to any opponents of the Kremlin’s current course.

And earlier this month, Russian election authorities rapidly blocked a liberal antiwar candidate, Boris Nadezhdin, from the presidential ballot, claiming irregularities with the signatures required for candidacy. Nadezhdin stood virtually no chance of winning, but the Kremlin will not tolerate even the slightest show of dissent.

“Putin now remains alone,” Kolesnikov said. “He is solus rex, the lonely king. No one can stop him triumphing.”

Some still cautioned that Putin could overreach. They pointed to Navalny’s stature among some members of the Russian elite and the possibility that he will be viewed as a martyr, as well as the risk that the West could toughen its resolve against Putin’s regime — and perhaps even increase assistance to Ukraine.

Navalny had called for a nationwide protest on the day of the March presidential election and for voters to gather at the polls at noon as a sign of dissent against Putin.

Analysts and opposition politicians said it was not clear how many would have responded to Navalny’s call given fears about Putin’s increasingly repressive regime. But they said it was possible that authorities might not have wanted to leave anything to chance.

The Moscow authorities “are very sensitive now to any details,” Kolesnikov added.

The muted display of mourning for Navalny in Moscow, with few willing to dare challenge the authorities by leaving flowers, was a sign of Russia’s transformation since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Thousands had taken to Moscow’s streets to protest Navalny’s arrest on his return to Russia in January 2021 in scenes that some observers likened to the August 2020 protests in Minsk that threatened to topple the Belarusian president.

But any protesters in Moscow today would face “an enormous mass of armed people,” said Gennady Gudkov, a senior Russian opposition politician now in exile in Paris.

“Street protests can only work if millions come out,” Gudkov said. “But because people are not organized and don’t have any resources, or newspapers, or political leaders or parties or trade unions, there is nothing.”

Others said the death in jail of such a prominent and admired political figure could still create an array problems for Putin.

Navalny’s “unmatched recognition, significance to the elites and involvement in domestic politics distinguished him from any other opposition figure,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a Russian political consultancy now based in France, posted on X. “This creates a significant political problem for the regime — they will have to deal with Navalny’s legacy,” she said, adding that she expects “a significant wave of anti-Navalny repressions” to follow.

And in Moscow, some Russian business executives were nervously watching whether inroads made in winning over part of the U.S. Republican Party to Russia’s point of view could come undone as a result of the death.

Already on Friday, GOP members began denouncing members of the party who had recently sided with Putin, while President Biden railed against Republicans for blocking passage of a bill that included billions in aid for Ukraine.

“Putin does not need this now,” said one Moscow businessman, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “It will now be very difficult for the Republican Party to object.”


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