Has Alexei Navalny brought the end of the beginning for Vladimir Putin?

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Even as Alexei Navalny was sentenced to over two years in prison on bogus charges this week, his return to certain arrest in Russia was not quixotic heroism in search of martyrdom but a calculated risk. He has been proven right as protests in over 100 cities across Russia continue with no sign of abatement. All he could count on occurring did happen. While several elements of a new landscape are far from sufficient for a regime change, they are necessary conditions for a credible challenge.

First, Navalny risked not just his liberty but his life in his return to Russia, which has made him an indisputable leader of the fractured opposition to Vladimir Putin. Only time will tell if he will evolve into another Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela, as a Russian essayist suggested, but his time in prison will make him even more eligible for such stature. He is supported by an estimated 20 percent of the population, an incredibly high figure for one politician who had never been allowed to appear on national television.

Second, his courage has instilled the movement with a moral dimension, without which no revolution can succeed. Russian pollsters have pointed to two indicators of moral indignation, an unusually high percentage of first time protesters and the plurality, at least in Moscow, of the younger demonstrators. By contrast, rallies in favor of Putin have been virtually nonexistent. That does not bode well for the Kremlin. While revolutions everywhere and at all times are started by small minorities, their initial success hinges on the passivity of those who favor the old regime.

Finally, the timing of Navalny and his return was as close to perfect as it could have been, with Putin now in one of the most vulnerable situations in his two decades in the Kremlin. The ratings of the aging authoritarian are down and dissatisfaction with the regime is up. Ten years of stagnant economic growth and falling incomes, plus the ravages of the pandemic, have exacerbated the simmering unhappiness of the Russian people with the rampant bribery and nepotism that have the rigged elections, stalled their upward mobility, and deteriorated health care and education.

The brazen luxury of the inner circle was seen just days after the return of Navalny in video of an alleged palace of Putin under construction on the Black Sea, complete with a pool, a casino, a winery, a hookah bar which appears outfitted for pole dancing, what appears to be an underground ice hockey rink, helicopter pads, and cheese storage with the basement. This at a time when tens of millions Russian citizens are in poverty and on meager salaries, miserly pensions, and dire unemployment benefits.

Yet these portents do not suggest Putin will retreat. Borrowing a page from the playbook of fellow dictator Alexander Lukashenko of “fraternal” Belarus, Putin is likely to let the demonstrators exhaust themselves in the frigid Russian winter, while subjecting the ones torn off from the columns by police to torture, severe beatings, and long prison sentences. Also in the cards is aggression against a neighboring country, which Putin will want to revive the patriotic fervor that caused his popularity ratings to skyrocket after the seizure and annexation of Crimea. But this time the stakes would be greater. The target might be a country like Estonia or Latvia on the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Still, Navalny and the movement he ignited have already narrowed the options for Putin and made his lifetime presidency less than certain. As Winston Churchill declared in 1942 after the victories over Germans in Egypt, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.” He continued by claiming, “But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

Leon Aron is director of Russian Studies for American Enterprise Institute.

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