Russia divided

Growing hostility to Putin and his team has led to large scale protests across the whole of RussIa, triggered by Navalny’s return and subsequent imprisonment. Reimposing tight and lasting control will require sustained force on their part, with obvious risks.

Expert comment Updated 7 July 2021 Published 3 February 2021 3 minute READ

Alexei Navalny may be jailed but Putin is the one under siege. 2020 had seemed to go the Russian president’s way in reinforcing his status as the irreplaceable ‘National Leader’, resolving the succession dilemma by ruling it out until 2030 or even 2036, and changing the system of government into one of autocratic hegemony, meaning increased powers of repression and tighter limits on the rights and freedoms of Russia’s citizens.

Appointing new and dependent figures to both regional and federal positions within a redesigned system of government, and swiftly passing laws through an automatically compliant Duma to ensure the obedience of his subjects seemed to complete the structure of a new Russia subject to what might well be described as a dictatorship.

Putin took this route in January 2020 out of the fear which has guided his decisions since his accession to the Kremlin 20 years before: that of losing control. He knew that his grip on Russia’s people was lessening, and that the existing constitutional rule that he would not be able to run again, in 2024, fed into a growing desire for change in the country. There was, in his eyes, no trustworthy successor to choose.

Like other autocrats in similar positions in other countries he and those around him who would be at risk if he went opted for changes in the 1993 constitution, most notably one allowing Putin to run again in both 2024,and 2030. These were pushed through by force, fraud and deception on 1 July producing a new ‘Basic Law’ replete with a gamut of internal contradictions. The local elections that followed it in September were held on similarly distorted lines, thereby confirming what would happen in the future too. Thanks in part to coronavirus, no one made a great fuss about these changes in 2020, not even, as it happens, Navalny.


Navalny’s return from Berlin to Moscow on 17 January this year set off an explosion. Putin’s 2020 legalised transition towards outright dictatorship is now in serious question. The trigger for the protest gatherings of 23 and 31 January was the demand for Navalny to be set free, but the driving force behind them was hostility towards Putin. That was even more obvious on 31 January, when despite the deployment of still greater numbers of security forces in a vain attempt to prevent a repeat of what had happened the week before, the popular cry was for ‘freedom’.

Both protests covered the whole of the Federation. The scale of them outside Moscow was also new. It reflected and reflects a common sentiment across Russia that enough is enough. The Kremlin’s only response to date has been thousands of arrests, and violence towards Russian citizens across the whole country. Putin himself has to date said nothing. He no doubt hopes or even supposes that however threatening these demonstrations have been they will in time die down, as others have before them. What he cannot doubt is that if he appears to rein back from what has been imposed over 2020 he will lose the control over the future.

What Putin personally and the regime he has created could have brought about is an internal collapse, with all the dangers – or opportunities if you are of that turn of mind – that would follow for the country and the rest of the world. Navalny is dangerous to the regime and the new repressive powers it has awarded to itself thanks to his ability to argue before a wide and attentive public the case for urgent systemic change necessary to overcome both Putin’s personal failings and those of the regime.

Navalny has built an effective network across Russia to support this endeavour. He and his colleagues have spelled out their aspirations for a better Russia in some detail but have not so far set out an agenda of concrete action that might put them into effect. That is understandable insofar as the present system is beyond reform, making evolution stemming from it towards a benign future improbable at best. How exactly to arrive at for example the just elections and responsible judicial system that Navalny has described as essential needs thought. Change as and when it comes will be painful for many. Consideration now as to priorities and means to bring it about could make it more manageable.

The present stand-off

Putin, for his part, has behind him established interests that depend on his remaining in power, total control of the country’s extensive security forces and backing from those, in an older generation in particular, who fear the uncertainties of change. Trust in him and his government somehow to reme-diate problems such as the steady and continuing decline in incomes, poor health and education, or the disparity between the power and wealth of Moscow and the contrasting state of the regions has been significantly undermined. But these sorts of concerns have not yet become such as to rob him and his fellows of public weight. The threat to him is different.

There is no disguising the facts that the present regime relies on violence for its survival and that the main force behind the explosion of anger last month was not just dismay in what the regime has become, but a lack of hope for the future, particularly within the generation of Russians under 35 years-old. Putin has offered no compelling forward vision. He and his cabal cling instead to the past, and an imagined one at that. Navalny and his like urge substantive change for Russia to be decided by Russia’s citizens – once Putin and Putinism are abolished.