Alexei Navalny’s death: Putin’s punitive response to Russia’s only hope for change 

By Alex Jennings

In a world of increasingly multipolar public opinion, the response to Alexei Navalny’s death seemed a remarkable moment of unity. But while few could deny the immensity of his courage or the apparentresponsibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal regime, perhaps there was a more significanthuman instinct at play in the reaction, as well. The idea of heroism has always held a special allure, and Navalny, in extreme contrast to his arch-enemy in the Kremlin, embodied the integrity of a hero. In many ways, Navalny’s death was a striking reminder of human perseverance despite overwhelming odds, a moral determination recognised throughout the world.

Yet we must not forget why such bravery was necessary and what Navalny’s death expresses about Russia today. After 25 years in power, it is clear that Vladimir Putin is nothing short of a paranoid dictator, a ruthless autocrat whose survival depends not just on the external war in Ukraine, but on the internal war against any hint of dissent in Russia, too.

According to Amnesty International, more than 20,000 individuals have been subjected to heavy reprisals for criticising the war in Ukraine since 2022. Thousands are serving prison sentences for their beliefs. In 2023 alone, more than 100 people were charged with treason for opposing the regime, an offence which carries decades in prison. After Navalny’s death and in a sign of the extent of repression in Russia, hundreds were arrested for even laying flowers at makeshift shrines.

Is there any realistic hope of a democratic future?

In this context and after the death of Mr Putin’s most famous opponent, the opposition movement in Russia appears to be at its lowest ebb in decades. Is there any realistic hope of a democratic future left? Even at such a dark moment for those opposed to Mr Putin, there are still signs of optimism. Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has been particularly defiant and vowed to continue her husband’s work. Although living in exile, continuing to connect with people in Russia through the anti-corruption organisation her husband created could go a long way to keeping the democratic cause alive.

Other opponents of President Putin could also take up the mantle of opposition leader. One such figure is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a UK-Russian dual citizen who has survived two assassination attempts and was jailed for 25 years in 2023 for criticising the Russian government and the war in Ukraine. Although the Foreign Office has so far refused to negotiate for his freedom on the grounds that it could encourage hostage-taking, it is argued that after the death of Navalny, western governments should do all they can to secure the release of political prisoners in Russia before it is too late.

The death of Mr Putin’s most significant opponent is ultimately a sign not of the Russian president’s strength but his weakness.

Meanwhile, help for Ukraine is another vital area where the West can pressure Mr Putin. But with Western aid faltering, Russia spending a massive 7.1% of GDP on defence, and the possibility of Donald Trump ending American support for Ukraine from January 2025, a sizeable increase in European military assistance is required to stop President Putin’s war of conquest. To this end, some have advocated liquidating Russian sovereign overseas assets currently frozen by Western countries and worth nearly €300 billion. These funds would be donated to Ukraine. It would undoubtedly provide a significant boost to Ukraine’s war effort. Yet, there have been warnings that such action would be illegal and could dissuade countries like China from depositing money in the West.Perhaps a possible compromise could be to seize the interest being made, amounting to €5-6 billion a year, instead.

Whatever lies ahead for the opposition movement in Russia, the death of Mr Putin’s most significant opponent is ultimately a sign not of the Russian president’s strength but his weakness. Authoritarian regimes are often more fragile than they appear, utterly dependent on the personality of the leader and without any obvious successor for fear of rivalry. As Navalny himself remarked following his recovery from an attempted assassination while in exile, “If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong”.

Although Navalny is gone, he will no doubt remain a symbol of resistance and hope. With courage to the very end, he was the antithesis of Mr Putin, and by offering a glimpse of a different Russia, he will inspire many others to continue the fight for freedom. A brighter future, after all, could always be closer than it seems.

Image: Evengy Feldman via Wikimedia Commons

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