Two ways of fighting Putin: Navalny vs Maidan

Two ways of fighting Putin: Navalny vs Maidan
Opposition figure and anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny is about to be buried and Russia's hopes for change in Putin's lifetime go to the grave with him / bne IntelliNews
By Leonid Ragozin in Riga March 1, 2024

February is the new August in Russia. Ever since the 1991 coup that ended Soviet communism August was reputed to be the month of black swans that changed the course of Russian history.

But this breed of birds changed its seasonal migration patterns in February 2014 when Putin ordered his troops to occupy Crimea in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution. Eight years later, in February 2024, he would double down by launching a full-out invasion of Ukraine.

There were more black swan events in the last decade. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed under the walls of the Kremlin in February 2015. This year’s February saw the death - and quite possibly assassination - of Aleksey Navalny.

This coincided with the ten-year anniversary of the Ukrainian revolution which exemplifies a type of resistance that’s very different from the explicitly peaceful and dignified protest against Putin’s regime in Russia, which both Navalny and Nemtsov represented. It’s worth taking one’s time to compare the two.

“Putin wet himself”

There were happier Februaries before the war in Ukraine. In February 2012, when Bolotnaya protests were in full swing in Moscow, members of anti-Putin opposition built a human chain around Moscow’s Garden Ring - a 15.6-kilometre circular avenue that delineates the boundaries of the city centre. Most of them sported white ribbons - the movement’s insignia of choice. Some of the ribbons came in the form of white dogs and cats, as the author of this piece documented outside his workplace at the BBC bureau near Paveletskaya station.

The Bolotnaya movement was largely made of Russia’s fledgling middle class. These people were the chief beneficiaries of the economic boom in the first decade of Putin’s era, but they wanted more - Western-styled political liberties, honest elections, urban improvements and the end of rampant corruption. It was a decidedly peaceful and dignified protest that drew inspiration from velvet revolutions that brought down communism in Eastern Europe, including Russia’s own revolution in August 1991.

Putin’s regime was visibly shaken at the start of the protests (as Pussy Riot put it in their song from that period, “Putin wet himself”). But the regime gradually regrouped, adopting Christian fundamentalist rhetoric imported from the American Bible Belt in order to paint the protesters as woke and perverts intent on undermining Russia’s “traditional values”.

The Bolotnaya protest was dissolved in May 2012. The author of this piece was arrested on that day as riot police mopped up the streets adjacent to Bolotnaya Square. Obsessed with the anti-LGBT legislation at the time, Western media completely overlooked the subsequent clampdown on the protest, which involved picking out a few dozen people of different political convictions and throwing them into prison in order to intimidate broader masses.

But it was hardly the end of it. The aftermath of the Bolotnaya protest is when Aleksey Navalny’s star began to shine and when he emerged as THE leader of the Russian democratic opposition.

In the summer of 2013, the Kremlin chose to allow Navalny to run in Moscow mayor’s election. Barred from central television and prevented from running a proper campaign, Navalny still came second gaining 27% of the vote, as per the official count. Albeit not a majority force yet, Navalny-led opposition showed itself as a potent force that could keep influencing Russian politics.

But this is when geopolitics kicked in.

Attempted Revolution

Later the same year, the Euromaidan revolution began in Kyiv, triggered by President Yanukovych’s abrupt U-turn on association agreement with the EU.

There were three key differences between Ukraine’s Maidan and Bolotnaya movement in Russia. Maidan was a revolt against a democratically elected government which commanded a weak and politically fractured security apparatus. It was no match to Putin’s authoritarian “vertical of power” and his fledgling machine of repression.

Secondly, Maidan was a much broader movement which united different social classes and political forces. Crucially, it had a strong and radical militant component, led by far right groups, whose members proved ready to fight and die in the final, blood-stained days of the revolution.

Finally, there was the geopolitical dimension. While initially the rampant post-Soviet corruption and lawlessness were an important theme of the protest, just like at Bolotnaya, it would be gradually squeezed out by rhetorics that framed it in geopolitical terms, as in Ukrainian people versus moskali - Moscow stooges. It had the promise of an international conflict from the outset.

The equation for both Bolotnaya and Maidan was that of means, ends and values. Bolotnaya prioritised values as at stake to create a viable and attractive alternative to the securitocratic mafia state. For Maidan, the ends justifies the means, which is why elements of the same very mafia state emerged at the helm of the protest.

Maidan’s militant part coalesced around the Right Sector - an amalgamation of extremist far right groups with names like White Hammer led by Dmytro Yarosh, a close associate and the relative of Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the former head of the SBU, Ukraine’s main security agency. A prominent member of the pro-American faction in the SBU, Nalyvaichenko had been involved with Yarosh’s own militant organisation, the Trizub, since the early 1990s.

Nalyvaichenko would be appointed the head of the SBU after the victory of Maidan. As we learned from a recent New York Times investigation, he would immediately launch a close collaboration between the SBU and the CIA that resulted in the emergence of at least 12 CIA’s listening stations near the Ukrainian border with Russia. It is this kind of infrastructure which Putin often cites as a reason for launching a full-out invasion in 2022.

Many Right Sector militants would be eventually absorbed into SBU’s crack force, the Alfa. Some of them were members of pre-existing organised crime groups, as uncovered by the investigation into the assassination of journalist Pavel Sheremet conducted by Zaborona.

Even more ominously, the shadowy businessman cum politician Andriy Artemenko appeared at the initial gatherings of Right Sector as its key sponsor. The owner of an airline that moved troops and cargo from the US base in Qatar to Afghanistan and Iraq, Artemenko would later emerge in one of multiple scandals related to Donald Trump. He would be described in the American media as the right-hand man of Eric Prince, the founder of a private army, formerly known as Blackwater.

Maidan was a revolutionary attempt that failed to bring about an actual revolution, as in deep change in the form of governance. Yes, it did bore all the vestiges of a revolution and it succeeded in toppling the elected government. It generated captivating footage for TV networks, keeping global audiences glued to the screens. But it failed to undo the mafia state, while succeeding in sparking an international conflict that has a potential of evolving into World War III.

For Putin’s regime, Maidan was a godsend. It allowed him to reframe his domestic conflict with the opposition as an existential battle with the West, conflating the pro-democracy opposition fighting his mafia state with the West’s questionable geopolitical designs on post-Soviet space that consolidated support for etatist forces in Russia across the aisle.

Maidan's glorification of nazi collaborators like Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera made it easy for him to paint it as a resurgent threat reminiscent of Hitler’s invasion. He outsourced his domestic conflict into the neighbouring country using misery befallen on Ukrainians as a cautionary tale for Russians who could have been dreaming about their own Maidan.

Yet, after Minsk agreements were signed and the first hot phase of the war in Ukraine ended, domestic politics returned in Russia. Putin’s approval bubble, generated by the annexation of Crimea, began deflating as a result of an unpopular pension reform. Meanwhile, Navalny launched a presidential campaign as part of which he set up the widest opposition network ever covering practically all Russian regions. He was the first opposition leader in Russia during Putin’s decades who managed to take the protest out of the two capitals, Moscow and St Petersburg, into provincial Russia. He also oversaw a massive generational shift in the opposition movement, rallying thousands of youngsters under his banners.

Putin eventually had to resort to attempting to poison Navalny, which the latter survived. Navalny’s fateful return to Russia in January 2021 coincided with president Zelensky’s U-turn from peacemaker to Russia hawk and Putin’s subsequent decision to start amassing troops at the Ukrainian border. A year of brinkmanship followed, leading up to the full-out invasion in February of 2022.

Beyond War

It is clear that international conflict helps Putin consolidate power. There is nothing more stable than a rogue regime opposing the United States - North Korea, Iran and Cuba have been around for decades, providing a cause and a source of income for generations of military and political strategists in DC.

But whether in the absence of war, Putin would be always inclined to foment conflict artificially (or to clamp down on the opposition as brutally as he did), is a question which doesn’t have a straightforward answer.

There is an essentialist argument boiling down to the idea that Putin “has always been like that” and hatched his plan of global domination back in his KGB days in Dresden in the 1980s.

But it ignores Putin’s personal evolution to who he is now from a Western-backed Yeltsin’s heir, the first world leader to phone George Bush after 9/11 and the Russian leader who wanted his country to join NATO, as recently once again confirmed by NATO’s former secretary-general George Robertson.

This argument also denies the agency of Russian people who toppled the Communist regime in 1991. Why are they not doing the same now? Might it have anything to do with their changed perception of the West which, at least partly, is of the West’s own making?

Back in 1991, the appeal of the West was very high while the fear of it in Soviet society was low, thanks to the West’s own soft power. Whereas now in the era of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, the appeal of the West is questionable to say the least, while the fear of it in Russia is very real. The Western establishment is and will continue to be at pains recognising that it danced into this hair-raising confrontation together with Putin’s regime.

As Ukraine seems heading for some form of defeat, the way things stand on the frontline and with the US aid at the moment, the legacy of Maidan is going to be gradually reassessed. Meanwhile, peaceful resistance may once again emerge as the only viable method of bringing about democratic change in Russia.