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Navalny’s courageous example will damage Putin’s home front

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The writer is the provost and professor of economics at Sciences Po in Paris and a longtime friend of Alexei Navalny

The killing of Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison is terrible news — not only for the future of Russia, but also for Ukraine, Europe and the entire free world.

Russian ruler Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is conducted on many fronts. First, there is the hot war in Ukraine itself. Second, is a campaign of misinformation and influence in the west where Russia is trying to undermine the coalition that has placed sanctions on Putin’s regime and is providing military and financial support to Kyiv. Third is the home front, where Putin is brutally suppressing anti-war protests.

In this last fight, Navalny was a leader and inspiration for all Russians who oppose the war. His moral authority and his courage inspired millions at home and in exile. This was intolerable to the Kremlin.

Why does the Russian domestic front matter? For his war in Ukraine, Putin needs soldiers. For his influence campaign in the west, he needs to establish the narrative of universal support for the war among ordinary Russians. Neither is easy for the Russian leader.

Russians do not want to die in Ukraine. We have not seen any volunteers queueing to enlist, but we did see hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing Putin’s draft after the invasion. Twenty thousand Russians were detained for protesting against the war in 2022 alone.

Last month, thousands of Russians queued in the freezing cold to back Boris Nadezhdin, the only anti-war candidate in next month’s presidential election. Afraid of what an anti-war campaign might bring, Putin prevented Nadezhdin from running.

The anti-war campaign is convincing Russians that the invasion of Ukraine is unjust and dangerous. It is making it harder for Putin to recruit soldiers. The government either has to pay them a lot of money (about 10 times as much as the average wage in poor regions of Russia) or draft them by force. Several hundred thousand of those drafted in the autumn of 2022 are still in Ukraine, which has led to protests by soldiers’ families across the country.

Putin cannot rotate these troops; nor does he have enough money to recruit new mercenaries — at least not until his inevitable “election” in March’s sham poll. A fresh draft, meanwhile, would be hugely unpopular.

In order to undermine the protests, Putin has to convince anti-war Russians that they are a small and insignificant minority. That is why silencing Navalny was so important to the Kremlin. For even from his prison cell, Navalny continued to inspire millions and remind them that Putin’s repression is in fact a sign of weakness.

Putin knows that the war is not popular. So, in order to discourage potential protesters, he uses censorship and propaganda to suppress the message that there are many anti-war Russians.

Navalny gave these Russians a voice that could break down the wall of lies and fear. But he understood the stakes very well. In a scene from the documentary Navalny he said: “If they decide to kill me, it means we are incredibly strong. We need to utilise this power to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don’t realise how strong we actually are.”

From day one of the war, Navalny called on his supporters to protest against it. He spoke out against the invasion not only because it was brutal, unjust and unprovoked. He also understood that the war is destroying Russia’s future, as well as Ukraine’s.

A year ago, he published, again from a prison cell, “15 theses of a Russian citizen who desires the best for their country”. This programmatic statement argued that it is in Russia’s interest to end the war immediately, withdraw the troops, return to the 1991 borders, pay reparations and investigate war crimes together with international institutions.

Navalny was a person of extraordinary courage. With his death, anti-war Russians have lost a leader and Europe and Ukraine a significant ally. But his vision that Russia could and should become peaceful and democratic will continue to inspire others.

In the documentary he insisted that “you’re not allowed to give up”. Three days after his death, his wife Yulia Navalnaya made a brave and unambiguous declaration that she will carry on the fight begun by her husband. She played a role in all Navalny’s political campaigns, offering crucial feedback and advice. And now she will be a strong leader in her own right.

The message her courageous stance sends is that standing up to Putin on the home front saves lives in Ukraine. Only a democratic Russia will make Europe safe again.

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