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The Week In Russia: Navalny, Ukraine, And Nuclear Signaling


A protester holds up an image of Aleksei Navalny saying "Free Navalny!" at a march in support of the jailed opposition leader in downtown Moscow in January 2021.

Jailed Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny was handed a new, nine-year prison sentence, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu disappeared for 12 days, and longtime government figure Anatoly Chubais reportedly left Russia for good. Meanwhile, Moscow stepped up its nuclear scare tactics as the war raged in Ukraine.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Make No Mistake

In January 2021, after Aleksei Navalny returned to Russia following treatment abroad for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning in Siberia that he blames on President Vladimir Putin, a question quickly arose: Had the Kremlin's most prominent foe made a big mistake?

Now a new question is coming to the fore: Has Putin made an even bigger one?

On several levels, the answer is obvious: Yes. The unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that he launched on February 24 has killed thousands of people and driven some 10 million from their homes, causing unfathomable suffering in a country whose people Putin has claimed are "one" with Russians.

Every day of the war, now in its 30th day, brings countless stories of needless death and destruction -- as well as further attempts by Moscow to justify its actions with false claims and baseless accusations about the actions and intentions of Kyiv, Washington, NATO, and the West.

A protester holds up a sign with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin, during an anti-war demonstration in Hamburg on March 20.
A protester holds up a sign with pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin, during an anti-war demonstration in Hamburg on March 20.

While there's no comparison to Ukraine, Putin's own country is also liable to feel the effects of the decision for decades to come.

Thousands of young Russians have been killed in a war some did not know they were fighting until after they crossed the border. Thousands more are fleeing a country headed into the unknown as the government takes its years-long clampdown on dissent to new levels and economic prospects dry up as unprecedented Western sanctions hit and the Kremlin's prosecution of a war that has left much of the world aghast pushes Russia toward isolation.

Russia's actions have sparked anger, dismay, and disgust abroad, with U.S. President Joe Biden calling Putin a "war criminal," the European Union saying Moscow's "war crimes must stop immediately," the UN General Assembly demanding the protection of civilians and an immediate halt to the war, and companies based in the West pulling out of a country whose leadership is increasingly toxic.

In the context of the confrontation between Putin and Navalny, which has been a palpable part of the fabric of Russia for over a decade -- a high-stakes substitute for electoral politics and the rule of law in a country where the outcome of most votes and court cases is known clearly in advance -- the decision to invade Ukraine has also changed the dynamic. In simple terms, it has created a new sense of uncertainty over this question: Who will prevail?

For at least a decade before his return, Navalny was Putin's highest-profile opponent, a corruption-exposing thorn in the Kremlin's side and a symbol of hope for political change in a country dominated by one man since 2000. That status, he argued, had earned him two convictions on financial-crimes charges he dismissed as fabricated and had kept him off the ballot when he tried to challenge Putin for the presidency in 2018.

But he was arrested at the airport upon his return to Moscow and has been behind bars ever since, currently serving a 2 1/2-year term on a parole violation allegation he dismisses as absurd. Large protests over his jailing faced an unprecedented state clampdown on all form of dissent, his organizations were branded extremist and outlawed, and several of his associates have fled Russia.

Aleksei Navalny, accused of fraud and contempt of court, is seen via video link during a court hearing at the penal colony where he is being held on March 22.
Aleksei Navalny, accused of fraud and contempt of court, is seen via video link during a court hearing at the penal colony where he is being held on March 22.

On March 22, the other shoe -- or the next in a seemingly endless series of shoes -- dropped: Navalny was sentenced to nine years in prison on a fraud charge that Kremlin critics say is laughable.

When that term ends depends on whether it is served concurrently with his existing sentence. But in any case, it is likely to leave him in prison -- and probably soon a "strict-regime" prison where his family and his lawyers would have an even harder time trying to ensure he survives -- until around the time of the next presidential election, due in March 2030.

Who Blinks First?

Before the invasion, the probable result of such a sentence would have been pretty easy to predict: Putin would claim another six-year term in 2030, after a constitutional change in 2020 that allows him to run, and Navalny would languish in prison. In fact, even before the verdict, observers have often said Navalny is likely to remain behind bars as long as Putin is in the Kremlin.

That assumption hasn't changed. But with repeated statements by Putin and other official that what they call the "special military operation" in Ukraine is going according to plan adding to the already voluminous evidence that it is not, and with the extent of the consequences for Russia, its economy, and its citizens still unknown, what's less clear is how long Putin will remain in power.

There are few indications, if any, of an imminent threat to his hold on the presidency.

But there are signs of fighting under the rug after what is widely believed to have been Putin's plan to unseat Ukraine's government or force Kyiv to cede its sovereignty within a few days fell flat, giving way to a grinding war whose outcome -- when it will end and how -- seems increasingly in doubt.

Unconfirmed reports this month said that a senior Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, Sergei Beseda, is under house arrest, with whatever formal charge he might face serving as a fig leaf for punishment over his involvement in the decision-making ahead of the invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrive for the opening of a forum outside Moscow in June 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrive for the opening of a forum outside Moscow in June 2015.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had not been seen in public since March 12 -- and when he was seen, for a few seconds, in the upper right-hand corner of the Kremlin version of a Zoom meeting on March 24, it did little to dispel suspicion that something could be wrong. Nor did the words of Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, whose nondenial denial that Shoigu was having heart trouble -- "he's got a lot to deal with right now" -- seemed almost designed to deepen those rumors.

Further from Putin's hawkish inner circle, his ruling apparatus was hit by its highest-level defection since the war: Anatoly Chubais, a longtime government fixture since Boris Yeltsin's 1990s presidency and the man who gave Putin his first job in Moscow, quit his post as the Kremlin's special envoy for relations with international organizations for sustainable development and, according to numerous reports, left the country.

The apparent departure of Chubais is the end of an era, really -- but it doesn't mean the Putin era is about to end. When that might happen is uncertain, and it may depend substantially on the further course of the war he unleashed on Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) visits a new production line in Chelyabinsk with Anatoly Chubais (right) in December 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) visits a new production line in Chelyabinsk with Anatoly Chubais (right) in December 2016.

Nuclear Hints

While the war in Ukraine rages, Russia has been stepping up its nuclear scare tactics -- dropping hints that it could use nuclear weapons if it deems that necessary.

On CNN on March 22, Christiane Amanpour pressed Peskov on this issue, giving him multiple opportunities to say that Putin would not use nuclear weapons in the current conflict -- and he did not. Instead, he said Russia's nuclear doctrine was a matter of public record and specified that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons if it faces an existential threat.

Fine, a rational viewer might think: Russia faces no such threat, so there's no problem. After all, it is Russia that is on the attack in Ukraine -- the war has not touched Russian soil, and NATO has repeatedly said it will not send troops or impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine because it would risk a direct conflict with Russia.

However, Putin has long made the baseless claim that the United States and the European Union want to hold Russia back -- and at times, including lately, that has morphed into an assertion that the West is bent on the elimination of Russia.

In addition, he has pretended to wonder out loud, "What use to us is a world without Russia?" And has made other remarks that seem aimed to raise fears of nuclear war by suggesting that if he believes Russia faces extinction, he will take the world -- or at least the West -- down with him.

State TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, a leading Kremlin propagandist, echoed the "world without Russia' remark on February 28, a day after Putin said he was putting Russia's nuclear forces on high alert -- an order many experts saw as little more than an attempt to frighten the West.

A Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile is prepared at a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade outside Moscow in 2008.
A Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile is prepared at a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade outside Moscow in 2008.

And since the invasion of Ukraine began, at least two senior officials have repeated the false claim that the West is seeking to get rid of Russia.

"The very existence of Russia, [of] Russian civilization, is at stake now," Vladimir Medinsky, a former culture minister who is leading negotiations with Ukraine, said on March 24. And the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, said earlier this month that the West was trying to "destroy" Russia.

Needless to say, the nuclear posturing has led to plenty of discussion about Moscow's motives and the key question -- is it a bluff? And that's probably a big part of the point.

Dmitri Alperovich, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a U.S.-based think tank, voiced deep doubt that Putin would go so far, writing on Twitter that "there is NO benefit for Russia to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine."

"Everything they'd want to do with a nuke, they can do much easier with conventional weapons. And without becoming a pariah and completely isolated state in the process," he wrote.

Russia may be seeking to gain the upper hand after the failure of Putin's apparent plan to subjugate Ukraine with a swift and decisive victory.

"Russia makes these threats basically as a way of getting themselves out of a jam created by their own aggression and stupidity," Tom Nichols, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, wrote in a tweet.

"But in any case, the problem is that the threat to escalate isn't some insane doomsday rant, it's a threat to induce a lot of chaos and unpredictability and instability, to the point where no one would want to be in that situation and peace would be preferable," he wrote.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

About This Newsletter

Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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