The Russian state’s reputation is taking some hits abroad, with rejections of its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, mounting evidence of nefarious acts by its military intelligence agency across Europe, and anger over a buildup of military forces that sent tensions skyrocketing. At home, it’s hitting out hard at imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny’s already marginalized organizations, seemingly seeking to annihilate a force that President Vladimir Putin fears ahead of parliamentary elections in September.
These actions have been accompanied by what one analyst called “increasingly unhinged” rhetoric from top Kremlin allies: The parliament speaker claimed without evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was unleashed in a leak from a U.S.-backed lab, while the longtime foreign minister was called out for presenting Russians with a “false choice” between personal well-being and national pride.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Crossing The Line
In his annual speech to the nation last week, President Vladimir Putin growlingly warned foreign countries not to cross Russia’s “red lines” -- without stating where those lines lie, or much of anything else about them aside from their color.
At home, in the months before Putin’s speech and the week and a half since, his government has been crossing what its opponents, rights activists, and a substantial number of Russians may see as their own red lines.
Specifically, the state, having imprisoned its vocal opponent Aleksei Navalny earlier this year based on a parole-violation claim that was widely seen as a show of clumsy legal acrobatics -- he was faulted for failing to report to the authorities but he had been in Berlin at the time, recovering from a weapons-grade nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin -- took aim at the anti-corruption crusader’s organizations nationwide.
Prosecutors and courts are speeding through a process that seems likely to end soon with Navalny’s three main organizations -- the Moscow-based Anti-Corruption Foundations (FBK), which has authored numerous reports revealing evidence of profligacy and graft in the highest circles around the Kremlin; the lesser-known Citizens' Rights Defense Foundation (FZPG); and his network of regional offices across Russia, the meat and bones of an opposition party that is not recognized by the state -- outlawed as extremist groups.
This outcome would clearly mark a major step in what Kremlin critics say is Putin’s campaign to both sideline Navalny -- to push him to the political margins and beyond -- and to silence him.
The pressure on Navalny has intensified greatly in the past eight months, starting with his poisoning in Siberia last August. But it goes back at least as far as December 2011, when Navalny helped lead protests prompted by anger over evidence of election fraud that benefited the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party and dismay at Putin’s plans to return to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister.
In 2013, Navalny ran for Moscow mayor and came in second to the Kremlin-backed incumbent, with almost one-third of the vote. A prison sentence on financial-crimes charges he contends were fabricated was suspended to allow him to campaign -- but that was the last election he contested. He sought to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election, setting up regional campaign headquarters across Russia to support the bid, but was barred from the ballot due to a conviction in a separate fraud case in 2013.
It is that constellation of offices that prosecutors are seeking to label extremist, along with the FBK and the FZPG -- and that the Navalny aide who heads them, Leonid Volkov, announced on April 29 had been forced to disband -- though he added that some would now operate independently.
"This is a punch in the gut, a blow to the heart itself," Volkov said.
Putin’s main motive, at least in the short term, may be the desire to avoid a body blow -- or even a scrape -- in the elections to the lower parliament house, the State Duma, in September. United Russia is deeply unpopular, and Navalny has exposed weaknesses in the Kremlin’s electoral strategies with his Smart Voting initiative, which has helped defeat Kremlin favorites in several local elections in the past few years.
Longer-term, Putin may be determined to clear the field -- or to clear Navalny off the field -- ahead of 2024, when the next presidential election is due. Last year, he pushed through a raft of constitutional amendments that many critics saw as an ineffective smokescreen for a single amendment: the one that lets him run for a six-year term in 2024 and again in 2030, a full three decades after his first election, if he chooses.
Navalny, who is usually on the wrong side of verdicts, delivered a judgment on Putin’s first two decades in power as president or prime minister during a court hearing on April 29.
“Your emperor has no clothes, and millions of people are already shouting about it -- not just one little boy,” he told the judge by video link from prison, looking rail-gaunt in his first appearance on camera since he ended a hunger strike that his doctors said would have killed him very soon. “Twenty years of incompetent rule have led to this result: There’s a crown that’s slipping off his head, there are lies on television, we have wasted trillions of rubles and still our country is sliding into poverty.”
Navalny’s court appearance is hard to explain, in a way: He is already serving a 2 1/2-year prison term, so why another hearing? Answer: It’s another case, another part of what Navalny and his opponents say is a baseless bid to -- while physically blunting his challenge by separating him from society and shuttering his organizations -- paint him as an unpatriotic enemy of the people and a puppet used by Washington and the West to undermine Russia.
The court was hearing Navalny’s appeal of his February conviction on a charge of defaming a World War II veteran -- a politically and emotionally charged issue in countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, which lost an estimated 27 million people in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
Navalny, who had been charged after he mocked people who appeared in a Kremlin-organized promotional video involving the war, which Putin often uses as a rallying cry for patriotism, lost the appeal, as expected.
Meanwhile, Navalny’s backers reported that in examining the prosecution’s case in the extremism allegation, they discovered that Navalny, Volkov, and another senior associate are facing a criminal investigation on suspicion of creating an NGO that “infringes on the personality and rights of citizens.”
Details of the accusation were unclear, but the investigation came under a statute that Putin, last May, added to a list of crimes that bars anyone convicted from running for public office for five years -- a period that would cover the 2024 election.
But wait, there’s more “Navalny crackdown news,” as one journalist put it: Also on April 29, a court in the city of Arkhangelsk convicted a former associate of the opposition leader of “distributing pornography,” seven years after he shared a video by the German rock band Rammstein on the Internet in 2014.
Amnesty International has described the case as “utterly absurd,” a statement that exemplifies expressions of outrage abroad over the plight of Navalny and his supporters, which has further damaged already severely strained ties between Moscow and the West.
Explosions And Expulsions
And as the legal onslaught rumbled on in Russia’s courts, the European Parliament on April 29 passed a resolution threatening action against Moscow over its treatment of Navalny, its recent military buildup in Crimea and near the border with eastern Ukraine, and what the lawmakers described as "Russian attacks in the Czech Republic."
The latter was a reference to a snowballing dispute that erupted after the Czech government accused the Russian military intelligence agency known as the GRU of being behind an October 2014 explosion in the town of Vrbetice that set off 50 metric tons of stored ammunition and killed two people.
The accusations, based on Czech intelligence findings, focus on the same two purported GRU operatives -- Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga -- whom Britain says carried out a poison attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in March 2018.
The dispute has led Prague and Moscow to trade large-scale diplomatic expulsions and is reverberating in several European countries, including Bulgaria, which is investigating six Russian citizens suspected of involvement in a series of blasts at four weapons and armament facilities in that country in the past decade.
Alongside traditional diplomacy, Russia has also suffered setbacks in vaccine diplomacy -- its effort to promote the Sputnik V coronavirus shot in countries around the world, even as it struggles to get its own citizens vaccinated.
Earlier in April, Slovakia reported problems with the doses it received, saying they differed from those being reviewed by a European regulator and also apparently from those whose testing resulted in a positive review from the respected medical journal The Lancet.
And on April 27, the health regulator in hard-hit Brazil rejected calls by state governors struggling with a deadly second wave to import the Russian-made vaccine, citing what it said were "inherent risks," serious defects, and a lack of evidence guaranteeing that it is safe and effective.
The next day, the European Union accused Russia and China of conducting "state-sponsored disinformation" campaigns denigrating Western-developed coronavirus vaccines while promoting their own, suggesting that Moscow and Beijing had adopted a Cold War-style “zero-sum game logic” on a vital health-care matter.
Russia, at least from some quarters close to the Kremlin, countered with ire and more disinformation. State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a former Putin deputy chief of staff responsible for domestic politics, recycled a baseless claim that the source of the COVID-19 pandemic was a leak from a U.S.-backed lab.
Volodin also said, erroneously, that worldwide more people have been killed by the coronavirus than had died in World War II. The global COVID death toll is about 3.2 million.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, faced criticism for remarks in which he took aim at “liberal views” and suggested that Russians who have criticized the government and his ministry for aggravating relations with the West are selfish ingrates who care too much about themselves and too little about their country.
Foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov said the remarks were an example of “increasingly unhinged statements” from Lavrov, who has been foreign minister since 2004 and is the longest-serving minister in Putin’s government.
In an article published on April 28, Yelena Chernenko, a prominent journalist with the daily Kommersant, accused Lavrov of presenting what the headline called “a false choice between well-being and national pride.”
“I see no contradiction at all in wanting to live well and experiencing patriotic feelings,” Chernenko wrote. “After all, the better citizens live, the more reason they have to be proud of their country.”