Russia’s numerous challenges at home and abroad
Russian President Vladimir Putin faces many problems at home. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic presents a major challenge to the country as the virus continues to run rampant through the population.
The economic situation in Russia is also bleak. Last year, Russia quietly dropped its goal of becoming one of the world’s Top 5 economies. The poor economic situation is a result of the pandemic, the drop in oil prices, economic sanctions, and endemic corruption.
There have been more and more anti-government protests in recent months throughout the whole of Russia. Moreover, these are only Putin’s domestic problems. The foreign policy situation does not look much better.
Russia has experienced geopolitical setbacks in Syria and Libya. The situation in Belarus looks far from being resolved in a manner that will satisfy the Kremlin. Moscow just lost a major European Court of Human Rights case regarding gross human rights violations in the aftermath of its 2008 invasion of Georgia. The war in eastern Ukraine simmers on without an end in sight. And it is very possible that Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, could soon run out of fresh drinking water.
But perhaps Putin’s biggest problem comes from his main political opponent Alexei Navalny. In many ways, due to the international scrutiny and exposure around Navalny, this is where Putin’s domestic and foreign policy problems converge into one.
Navalny is one of the most prominent and internationally well-known opposition figures in Russia today. For many years he has been highlighting the corruption at the top of Russia’s ruling elite. He has a YouTube channel with millions of subscribers and millions of more followers on social media outlets such as Twitter and Instagram. He uses these platforms to criticize and expose the corruption of Russian oligarchs. Most of the time his sights are set on Putin himself.
This popularity has come at great personal cost. Since 2011, he has been imprisoned more than 11 times. The last time he had a chance to challenge Putin at the polls in 2018 he was banned from doing so. But the most severe attack against him came last August. Just weeks before nationwide local elections on Aug. 20, he was poisoned with Novichok, a chemical nerve agent. Evidence is pointing to Russian security services being responsible.
If Novichok rings a bell, that is because it was the same nerve agent used in March 2018 to poison Russian dissident Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. While Skripals survived the attack, one person who came across the nerve agent died. Thankfully, Navalny survived too — due to a bit of good luck and quick medical treatment.
Last week, Navalny returned to Russia after convalescing in Germany. Upon arrival, he was promptly detained by authorities at the airport. While he was in detention, he produced a video on a smart phone from the police station calling for Russians to “take to the streets.”
The next day his supporters released a video suggesting Putin was the owner of a massive and decadent palace on the Black Sea worth $1.4 billion. At a time when many Russians are struggling to make ends meet, this level of opulence will no doubt raise suspicions. Protesters have also heeded Navalny’s call and have been taking to the streets. At least one journalist covering the pro-Navalny protests was arrested.
But this domestic issue also has implications for Russia’s foreign policy. The blowback from Navalny’s detention has been swift. Leaders in Europe and North America have robustly criticized Putin’s treatment of Navalny since his return to Russia. There is no doubt that his seemingly arbitrary detention of Navalny sets a bad tone too for the start of the new administration of US President Joe Biden.
Even after some of the friendly overtures made directly by former American President Donald Trump, US-Russian relations remain fraught. Hopefully, Biden, who as vice president was part of the ex-American President Barack Obama administration’s failed Russian “reset” policy, has learned from his past mistakes when it comes to dealing with Putin. The recent Russian cyber hack of US government systems, coupled with the treatment of Navalny, will make it easier for Biden to justify a tough line against Russia.
Put simply, Navalny is a headache that Putin does not need right now. In the past when Putin needed a distraction from domestic crises he acted overseas. At least until now, your average Russian has been willing to rally around the flag and turn a blind eye to problems at home. However, with domestic troubles mounting for Putin, and with Navalny getting more attention — both at home in Russia and abroad — than ever before, the Kremlin’s options are limited. Russia’s overseas adventures are becoming costly and little benefit has been gained from them. Navalny will continue to tap into the broad discontent felt by many across Russia. This must be unsettling for someone like Putin.
The Kremlin might deny publicly that it views Navalny as a political threat, but all the actions taken against him suggest otherwise.
The Kremlin might deny publicly that it views Navalny as a political threat, but all the actions taken against him suggest otherwise. Navalny’s future, indeed his life, might hang on two issues: The scale of outrage in the West and whether there will be any meaningful outrage in Russia. Putin’s future might hang on one issue: How much of a political martyr does he want to make out of Navalny?
With the international spotlight on Navalny, and with a new US administration in the White House, 2021 is shaping up to be another difficult year for the Russian leader.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey