By Francesca Ebel and Serhiy Morgunov

March 8, 2024

The Washington Post


MOSCOW — Ukraine and the liberal Russian opposition share a common enemy. Both want to see an end to President Vladimir Putin’s reign and his war against Ukraine.  But the Ukrainian reaction to the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin’s greatest opponent, has highlighted the depth of the disconnect between the two sides. It has also underscored the complexities of achieving lasting reconciliation between the two neighbors, even if Putin were no longer around.

As tens of thousands of Russians inside the country and around the world flocked to pay their respects to the late politician, grieving the loss of what many saw as Russia’s last remaining democratic hope, in Ukraine the response was muted — if not actively hostile at times — for a man many viewed with heavy skepticism.

The announcement by his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, that she would take up the reins in the fight against Putin, produced a similarly dismissive response. Many Ukrainians do not see Navalny as the democratic standard-bearer he is considered to be in the West.

In one hint of the discomfort and mistrust, Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska declined an invitation to President Biden’s State of the Union, in part — according to officials familiar with the discussions — because of plans to seat her near to Navalnaya, who also turned down the invitation, citing fatigue. The roots of the friction are multifaceted.

Many in Ukraine view this war as the latest chapter in centuries of oppression at the hands of Russian rulers and so see liberal Russians, including the Navalnys, as just part of Russian society — and its imperial project. “Relations between Ukrainians and Russians are strained in general. You cannot blame Ukrainians for hating Russia and in many cases this extends to all Russians,” said Vladimir Ashurkov, a close associate of the Navalnys.

Russia’s liberals, however, are walking a tightrope. Their opposition to the war puts them at odds with much of their own society, including the thousands of families whose husbands, sons and brothers have been sent to fight in a conflict that Putin and his regime constantly tell them is crucial for Russia’s survival.

As such, many Ukrainians still feel that the Russian opposition has not gone far enough in condemning the killing of Ukrainians and occupation of their lands, instead opposing the war from a Russian viewpoint, focused predominantly on the losses of Russian soldiers and the conflict’s impact on the Russian population.

Navalny, who spent summers with his Ukrainian grandparents, had historically espoused the idea that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are one people, and that Crimea, illegally annexed by Putin in 2014, was historically a part of Russia. Navalny, a self-described Russian patriot, also at one point courted ultranationalist groups in an unsuccessful bid to form a broader anti-Putin coalition.

But Navalny had walked back these statements, most recently with the publication last year of a 15-point plan to dismantle Putin’s dictatorship and return Ukraine to its pre-1991 borders, including Crimea. The plan proposed to pay compensation to Ukraine and investigate Russian war crimes.

Still, many Ukrainians are unconvinced and while President Volodymyr Zelensky was quick to condemn Navalny’s death as the latest evidence of Putin’s murderous regime, there was no outpouring of condolences. Some even delighted at the news, cheering the death of what several people called “an imperialist chauvinist.” “Navalny’s life has brought no benefit to the Ukrainian victory; instead, he has caused considerable harm. He fueled the illusion in the West that democracy in Russia is possible,” wrote Valeriy Pekar, a prominent lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, on Facebook.

Ukrainian philosopher and essayist Volodymyr Yermolenko told The Post that he believes Russian liberals have “a long way to go” before they see eye-to-eye with Ukrainians. “There should be a greater self-criticism, an understanding of the imperial past and present on what the Russian idea actually means. We don’t see that at all in Russia.”

Ukrainians have also been disappointed by what they perceive as Russian society’s failure to remove Putin. After all, it was a decade ago that Ukrainians took to the streets and toppled their own pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, with over 100 people dying at the hands of Kyiv’s riot police in pitched battles. Before that, in 2004, Ukrainians staged the Orange Revolution to protest election fraud.

Why can’t the Russians just do the same, ask many Ukrainians. “History isn’t made in prisons. Change is forged through resistance to violence, weapons, and the establishment of new institutions,” wrote Petro Okhotin, a Ukrainian political scientist serving in Ukraine’s armed forces, on social media.

In an emotional speech just hours before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Zelensky appealed to the Russian people to rise up. “Who can stop this war? The people! It is time to stop it now, before it is too late,” he said, speaking in Russian.

Russians, however, did not revolt. The tiny minority of those who came out publicly against the war were swiftly arrested and given long jail sentences. According to OVD-Info, a Russian political watchdog, there are currently 901 criminal cases against antiwar protesters. A handful of Russians joined Ukrainian battalions to fight against their own people — but this remains a point of contention among the Russian opposition, as does fundraising for the Ukrainian army.

Russian liberals say that they have no more tools left with which to fight. Their opposition leaders are dead or jailed. Even teenagers have been arrested for protesting the war. In the weeks

since Navalny’s death, the simple act of laying flowers has become a show of political defiance, with scores of people arrested at memorials and following the funeral.  “Everything is getting worse and worse — we need a miracle. Everyone is waiting for something unexpected to happen — without their influence. They don’t feel they have power anymore,” said Anna, 47, who came to lay flowers at Navalny’s grave in Moscow on March 2, declining to give her full name for fear of reprisals.

Moscow-based Russian human rights defender Alexandra Popova, whose husband Artyom Kamardin was sentenced to seven years in jail last year for public readings of antiwar poetry, said that the opposition inside Russia is intimidated and isolated from each other.  “What the Russian opposition really lacks is sympathy from Ukraine — I have noticed a lot of aggressive rhetoric, such as: ‘you Russians are to blame for what is happening here.’ But there are a lot of people here who have been jailed, tortured and killed. People in Russia suffer too.”

A successful Russian opposition would probably have to prioritize domestic issues over the plight of Ukrainians, drumming up support from more neutrally minded parts of the Russian population — including those who support the war and do not sympathize with Ukrainians’ plight. “I think we have to understand that Alexei was a Russian politician. Focused on political struggle and political achievements in Russia, and that was the angle from which he chose his words,” Navalny associate Ashurkov said. “Yulia is also a Russian politician, so she would focus on things from this standpoint.”

Navalny himself dismissed the idea that all Russians have an imperial consciousness, blaming instead Putin’s dictatorship and urging the defeat of those who hold imperialist views through elections and peaceful protests.

But without proper acknowledgment that Russian imperialism was a driving force behind the war, Ukrainians say, uniting against Putin is a far-off dream. “Such conversation, however, is almost nonexistent in Russian anti-Putin circles,” wrote Ukrainian Afghan writer Mariam Naiem. “In light of this, it is essential to acknowledge that dialogue between the offender and the victim is unattainable as long as the violence persists.”


Morgunov reported from Kyiv.

Francesca Ebel is The Washington’s Post’s Russia correspondent. Before joining The Post in 2022, Ebel was the Associated Press’s Tunis correspondent. Ebel joined AP in 2017 as a multimedia journalist based in Moscow. Recently, she covered Russia’s war with Ukraine and was part of the team on the ground in Kyiv when the invasion began. Ebel has also worked as a freelance reporter from Ukraine, Russia and Tunisia, publishing with the Economist and Politico Europe Magazine, among other publications. She speaks Russian, French and Arabic. Education: Cambridge University, BA in Modern and Medieval Languages (Russian, Ukrainian, French)