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Russia's Putin and Navalny collide; who will survive?

Russia's Putin and Navalny collide; who will survive?
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To understand the events of Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning and his Jan. 17 return to Russia, you must know that there are two Navalnys: Navalny No. 1 is described by Kremlin-controlled media as a CIA agent, corrupt, a hater of Russia, a loud-mouthed liar; Navalny No. 2, according to his admirers, is a heroic fighter against the corruption of Russia’s ruling class, a proponent of democracy, the best hope for a civilized Russia.

If you ask an elderly Russian living on a state pension, he or she will identify Navalny as the first personification. If you ask a young Russian college graduate living in a city, he or she will favor the second version.

With a rapidly aging Russia, some two-thirds of Russians believe in Navalny No. 1. This goes a long way to explain why Russian dictator Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDo Biden's 'tough new sanctions' give Putin Nord Stream 2? Russia vows retaliation for new US sanctions: 'We do not intend to put up with this' Wray hints at federal response to SolarWinds hack MORE believes he can get away with poisoning Navalny and, now that that failed, jailing him for an extended period.

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Let’s begin with Navalny’s dramatic return to Russia after five months of life-saving treatment and convalescence in Germany.

Navalny and wife, Yulia, boarded Pobeda (“Victory”) Flight 936 bound for Moscow’s Vnukovo airport on Jan. 17. Upon boarding, the couple was greeted with applause by fellow passengers, some of them media reporters. In a clear message of concern, Russian social media had been circulating the picture of two KGB thugs entitled: “Here are the two Pobeda flight attendants who will make Navalny’s trip comfortable.” Encouraging comments overwhelmed the live YouTube coverage of Navalny’s departure for Moscow. Asked why he was returning, Navalny said that Moscow is his home, he is a Russian citizen, and he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

At Vnukovo, Pobeda 936 was initially listed as arriving some ten minutes late. In his announcement that he was returning, Navalny had invited his supporters to greet him at Vnukovo. To prevent large crowds from forming, police only allowed ticketed passengers through their barriers. A considerable crowd formed nevertheless, many walking by foot to the terminal. Some even bought tickets to get through the police barriers.

Navalny supporters milled about impatiently as airport authorities tacked on additional delays as Navalny’s plane circled the skies above the airport. Then Pobeda 936 disappeared from the arrival screens, and the word circulated that Pobeda 936 had been diverted to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Given distance and dense traffic, Navalny’s thwarted supporters circulated a joke that only Russians would understand: “According to what article of the criminal code has Navalny’s plane been diverted?”

At Sheremetyevo’s passport control, Russian authorities detained Navalny. Reporters were not allowed in his vicinity “due to COVID restrictions.” According to media accounts, Navalny faces three-and-a-half years in prison for not appearing at a parole hearing in Moscow scheduled during his hospitalization in Germany. As Navalny countered, he could scarcely pull himself out of a coma to attend a sham Moscow court hearing. Moreover, he came to Germany not because he wanted to but because he was near death.

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Putin mounted maximum pressure to keep Navalny in comfortable exile in Germany as the most famous Kremlin critic. The Kremlin previously announced the confiscation of Navalny’s Moscow apartment; his political deputies were imprisoned, and the threat of considerable jail time hung over his head.

Putin’s threats did not work, however. Navalny concluded that he could not carry out his reform program from afar. Stubbornly, he was not going to let Putin off the hook.

The events of Jan. 17 are the collision of two immovable objects. Putin could not show weakness vis-a-vis Navalny; Navalny could not continue to be Navalny if he allowed himself to be intimidated by the corrupt Kremlin.

The negative consequences of Navalny’s return are striking. For the first time, he faces considerable jail time; he will have to endure the farce of Moscow-court “telephone justice,” and there is the chance that Putin will allow his thugs to go after Navalny’s wife. Navalny himself will be treated harshly in Russia’s labor camps, much as happened to oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky; in prison, Navalny risks political assassination by “Chechen inmates,” whom the Kremlin will claim operated out of personal animus — or he could die due to the withholding of medical assistance, as happened to Sergei Magnitsky.

Putin also will pay a price that could be considerable. The three Baltic states have already condemned Navalny’s arrest as “unacceptable.”

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel retires from the political scene, her successor will find it politically impossible to normalize relations with Russia; Russia’s dream of a near-monopoly of European gas trade may have to be scuttled. Politicians across the German political spectrum are calling for the Nord Stream 2 project to be halted in the wake of the Navalny jailing. Nord Stream 2’s major insurer has announced plans to exit the project, and Nord Stream 2 has itself announced the halt to construction. 

Navalny’s imprisonment will deter the new Biden administration from a second “reset,” as had occurred during the Obama administration.

In a word, Navalny’s attempted murder and his subsequent arrest solidify Russia’s status as a rogue state that needs to be taught a lesson.

Putin fears Navalny for his plans to weaken the Kremlin’s hold on power during a time of extreme stress caused by COVID-19, regional and municipal unrest, and economic weakness. Navalny had been attacking the Kremlin’s power by grassroots organizing at the local and regional levels, particularly in locales that have grudges against Moscow. With state assembly elections coming up in 2021, Navalny hopes to challenge the discredited United Russia ruling party’s majority in parliament via the election of nonpartisan deputies; with significant representation by unaffiliated parties, Navalny hopes to transform Russia into a true parliamentary system.

Putin and Navalny are immovable objects because they have completely different visions for Russia. Putin believes in the “power vertical,” whereby all power emanates from Putin and his Kremlin oligarchs. Navalny believes in local and regional self-government and the transformation of Russia into a parliamentary system.

Ultimately, only one of them can win.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.