Demonstrations across Russia have initiated what could become a marathon confrontation between the regime of President Vladimir Putin and its popular opponents. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is showing a political creativity and tactical skill that Putin has not previously faced. If the protests continue, they could reveal vulnerabilities in his decades-long hold on power.
On January 23, large crowds turned out in scores of Russian cities calling for the release from prison of Navalny, who returned to the country last week after recovering from a poisoning that nearly took his life. At least three thousand people were arrested by police, and many were beaten. Organizers quickly announced a new round of rallies for a week later (and perhaps many weekends after that).
How has Putin responded in the past?
Putin’s success in riding out many past protests likely gives him and his lieutenants confidence that they can do so again. Last year’s demonstrations in both Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, and Khabarovsk, the largest city in the Russian Far East, carried a lesson for the regime: ignore protester demands, wait the crowds out, crack down brutally from time to time but without too much bloodshed, and eventually the crisis will pass.
What has changed now?
This formula—stubborn indifference with doses of violence—may well work for Putin this time too. But novel elements of this bout of protests make the outcome less certain.
Alexei Navalny. With his bold decision to return to Moscow and the release of a widely viewed video purporting to expose regime corruption, Navalny has shown himself to be a capable and imaginative political figure—even from jail, perhaps the most formidable adversary Putin has faced.
Navalny’s movement. Even if the crowds were not large in every case, the fact that protests occurred in more than one hundred cities shows that—for the first time—Putin faces a nationwide opposition. The strategic sophistication of Navalny’s team is underscored both by its video release and, before that, by its exposé of the Federal Security Services (FSB) personnel who poisoned him last summer.
Electoral calendar. In 2020, Putin used his political supremacy to win a referendum that extended his legal tenure as president. This year, by contrast, brings parliamentary elections in which Putin will not be on the ballot. His party, United Russia (famously renamed by Navalny as “the party of crooks and thieves” and much less popular than the president), has had less success at the polls than Putin himself. Moscow’s 2019 city council elections, in which Navalny allies gained ground by adopting what the opposition leader called a “smart voting” strategy, add to the Kremlin’s worries. They showed that uniting around whichever opposition figure has the best chance of defeating United Russia’s contender can get their candidate elected.
Regime exhaustion. The final consideration is an imponderable but unavoidable issue: the seeming exhaustion of Putin’s regime. He has now been president as long as, or longer than, many toppled dictators of the twentieth century: the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, to name a few. His poll ratings are slipping; the economy has performed poorly for a decade; and his international standing is diminished. Putin’s obsession with the challenge posed by Navalny further conveys a lack of confidence.
What comes next?
Smart money is on Putin hanging on, perhaps even easily. But the obstacles to his dominance are increasing. The weeks to come may put the vulnerabilities of Putinism on vivid display.