Navalny knew defeating Putin in Ukraine was just the first step

To rid the world of Russia’s evil regime, victory on the battlefield would have to be followed by a total transformation of the country’s politics

February 23, 2024
Alexei Navalny, a man wearing a blue and white striped t shirt, stands with his arms crossed in front of a green canopy of trees.Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
In June 2011, Navalny attends protests in the Khimki forest, Russia, where development plans appeared symbolic of rampant corruption. Image: Sergey Ponomarev / Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

I first met Alexei Navalny at the margins of a conference in Moscow in 2011 honouring the memory of Andrei Sakharov. All the names of the old class of dissidents and liberal activists—those whose thoughts had brought down the Soviet Union—had come together.

But there was also a young man called Alexei Navalny who had started to stir the pot and generate an amount of controversy. Those who once fought primarily with their pens and their words were somewhat suspicious of a man ready to mobilise whatever it was possible to mobilise against the rapidly evolving authoritarianism of the Putin regime. 

We had a long breakfast and he laid out his strategy. His methods were less to challenge the ideas of the regime—in fact, it was and remains a regime rather devoid of such—but to go straight for the interests of the regime’s key personalities in the economic domain. What he saw was a regime built on a nexus of massive corruption and narrow elite security interests. 

His first target had been Gazprom, where he had used his legal talent to simply buy shares and challenge the management of the company—a key pillar of the regime—at the shareholders meeting. It was as novel an approach as it was unsettling to the regime, which had desperately tried to give its core companies a veneer of respectability in the eyes of the outside world, and thus could neither close him down nor answer the profoundly uncomfortable facts he exposed.

With me he argued that the west had to take this corruption and its effects far more seriously. “The regime thinks they can just buy you off,” he said and pointed at the glaring example of the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. For them the west is corrupt, and money is the way to corrupt it even further. All in the interest of regime stability in Moscow, needless to say.

Over the years that followed Navalny assembled an impressive group of lawyers, accountants and economists who exposed layer by layer the structures and schemes of the figures who lead Putin’s regime. Their exposés were so detailed that I don’t think they would have been possible without help from insiders. Greed was certainly there in the regime structures—but so was jealousy. And there were certainly those that also tried to hedge their bets on the future.

In parallel with this work, he and his dedicated team developed innovative political strategies, if not to defeat the regime at least to seriously embarrass it. “Smart voting” simply meant voting for whomever had the greatest possibility of defeating the regime candidate. Defeating the regime came first—shaping what victory one day might mean was supposed to come later.

Navalny’s exposés attracted the attention of many tens of millions of viewers across Russia on YouTube and other digital channels. The digital capabilities of his team were and remain profoundly impressive. 

His decision to expose the distinctly corrupt schemes involved in the construction of “Putin’s Palace” down by the Black Sea was certainly a profound sin in the view of the regime, but the cardinal sin for Putin was when Navalny at the same time started to expose the complicated and multifaceted—that’s a diplomatic term—life of Vladimir Putin himself.

The decision to try to murder him in August 2020 must have been taken by Putin personally. The FSB presented a scheme that looked fail-safe, but then bungled the entire thing, and in the aftermath—as Navalny had been able to recover in Berlin— was exposed by Navalny and his team in a way that demonstrated the profound combination of evil and incompetence at the heart of the regime.

Navalny’s decision to return to Russia was brave in every single respect. He knew that he was up against a regime that wanted to kill him. But, as was very evident the first time I met him, he was driven by a determination that the regime had to be confronted—whatever the ultimate cost might be. It was about the future of his Russia, and he felt very strongly about it.

Navalny wanted a tactical defeat of Putin in the Ukraine war to be turned into a strategic transformation of Russia itself

To the surprise of virtually no one he was immediately imprisoned, and what followed was a saga of one ridiculous so-called court procedure and prison or penal facility after the other, in a steady and determined downward spiral. The regime certainly wanted to break him—and ultimately kill him.

While in prison he penned a lengthy piece about his view of the future of Russia, which lawyers got out and which was eventually published in the Washington Post in September 2022.

By then Putin had started his full-scale war against Ukraine. 

Navalny wanted a tactical defeat of Putin in that war to be turned into a strategic transformation of Russia itself.

He wrote that “since the beginning of Putin’s rule, and especially after the Orange Revolution that began in 2004, hatred of Ukraine’s European choice, and the desire to turn it into a failed state, have become a lasting obsession not only for Putin but also for all politicians of his generation.” “Without Ukraine, in this view, Russia is just a country with no chance of world domination.”

That’s why he said that while defeating Putin in this war was important, “no long-term goals can be achieved without a plan to ensure that the source of the problems stops creating them. Russia must cease to be an instigator of aggression and instability.” That, in his view, was the strategic goal to aim for in this war.

In order to achieve this, defeating Putin and his regime wasn’t enough. Navalny warned that a new Putin could always emerge, until Russia’s system of government was transformed from one where one man at the top could control everything to a parliamentary system of more dispersed power. After the fall of the USSR, it might have seemed logical to the Yeltsin team to establish a presidential system and give plenty of power to a good guy—but in retrospect that had turned into “a monstrous mistake”, the consequences of which we are all living with now. 

Thus, Alexei Navalny wasn’t just the highly effective anti-corruption campaigner and the one with the ability to mobilise talent and energy across Russia against the regime, but also a man with a deep view of where he wanted to take his Russia, in order to make it a normal country with a future, like others.

For the regime, he had to be eliminated. 

The last picture we have of him is from the day he allegedly suddenly dropped dead up in the Arctic. He’s smiling and obviously joking—that was his style. He certainly wasn’t a broken or sick man. Then he—according to the authorities—dropped dead without any advance warning whatsoever.