by Alexander Vindman and Garry Kasparov

March 22, 2021

The Washington Post


On Feb. 25, Amnesty International stripped away the status of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as a prisoner of conscience. By singling him out, the move was a blunder, one that undermines the Russian people’s fight against Putinism. If international attention remains focused only on the person rather than the protest movement, this will hinder the development of an opposition movement in Russia and inhibit the democratic world’s response to Putin’s authoritarianism.

Russian security services know it is easier to tarnish and eliminate a man rather than a movement. Amnesty’s announcement has aided the Kremlin’s desire to incapacitate the most serious challenge to the Putin regime in almost a decade. Now, with Navalny imprisoned and the protests ruthlessly subdued, the regime may be poised for another attempt on Navalny’s life, after the failure of his poisoning last year.

The sixth anniversary, on Feb. 27, of the murder of another Russian opposition leader who fought for a vision of a free and democratic Russia — Boris Nemtsov — provides a sobering reminder of the Putin regime’s willingness to shamelessly eliminate opponents. President Biden’s calling Vladimir Putin a “killer” on Wednesday is being portrayed in some quarters as provocative when it is simply accurate.

Meanwhile, a debate has emerged around Navalny. Some argue that Navalny should receive the Nobel Peace Prize, or compare him to Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. By contrast, others question his personal and political beliefs, especially in connection to ethnonationalism and Ukraine. The praise and scrutiny are warranted, but they are distractions.

Holding this debate now puts the cart far in front of the horse. Russians may eventually elect a presidential candidate such as Navalny, but free and fair elections remain on the distant horizon in Putin’s Russia. The issue at hand is whether one is for or against authoritarianism. Supporting Navalny as a political candidate is not a prerequisite for supporting Navalny’s release and a democratic Russia.

There should be no cult of personality around Navalny as the democratic heir apparent to Putin. This point is vital, given that protests without a leader attract more sympathy from the average Russian. Rather than being portrayed as a power struggle between two individuals, the attempted assassination and unjust imprisonment of an opposition leader must be framed within the confines of an anti-authoritarian movement.

Navalny’s greatest gift has been galvanizing anti-authoritarian protests in a country where such actions have historically been difficult to inspire. However, if a healthy democratic front is going to coalesce, then the opposition must survive and flourish in Navalny’s absence. There is a real possibility that Navalny will perish during his prison term. The movement cannot die with him, otherwise his return to Russia will be rendered meaningless.

Navalny has received the lion’s share of media attention, but his corrupt trial and imprisonment are among thousands currently taking place, including the Kremlin’s most recent crackdown on an opposition forum for independent municipal council members in Moscow.

These Russians who brave freezing temperatures, truncheons and arrests to fight for a voice in their future and the future of their country must become the focus of international attention. After more than 20 years, Russians, especially the younger generation, are weary of Putin and rampant corruption,

frustrated by the erosion of their liberties and by tangible failures like rising food and utility prices. They are fighting for the freedom to choose a different path, not to place Navalny atop the Kremlin.

With a renewed focus on the movement rather than the man, the West must bolster its support for a free and democratic Russia. Expressions of “deep concern” and the current sanctions regime are not enough. These measures only punish the puppets while letting the puppet masters go free.

As Swedish economist Anders Aslund writes in “Russia’s Crony Capitalism,” “the two biggest offshore havens offering a vast capacity to receive anonymous investment are the United States and the United Kingdom.” That must change, but other democratic nations should similarly back away from Putin’s regime. Germany, in particular, should reconsider its business ties to Moscow — specifically the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline which is nearing completion.

U.S. and British officials are already reportedly weighing additional sanctions ranging from measures against oligarchs to targeting Russia’s sovereign debt and Nord Stream 2. The measures must be part of a concerted effort to punish the Kremlin for its blatant violations of human rights and unrestrained repression of opponents both at home and abroad.

If we in the circle of democratic nations fail, Putin, his oligarchs, his enablers and the mafia-state structure built around them will know that they can snuff out the stirrings of democracy with beatings, arrests and murders — and we will be complicit. The moment demands action, not debate.


Alexander Vindman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former director for European affairs at the National Security Council, is a Pritzker Military Fellow at the Lawfare Institute. Garry Kasparov is chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the Renew Democracy Initiative.