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Alexei Navalny’s chief of staff: “Putinism will now come to an end much sooner”

Leonid Volkov on how the war in Ukraine has given Russia’s opposition a new chance to shape the country’s future.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – In August 2020 Alexei Navalny, the charismatic Russian anti-corruption activist, was poisoned with a deadly nerve agent in an attack widely blamed on the Russian security services. He was airlifted to Germany where he made a full recovery. In January last year, Navalny returned to Russia and was immediately jailed, an act that turned him into the undisputed leader of the Russian opposition to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Leonid Volkov, a thick-set 41-year-old former IT worker from the central Russian city of Ekaterinburg, has been one of Navalny’s closest allies for nearly a decade. In 2016, he was made Navalny’s chief of staff. Forced into exile in 2019, Volkov has coordinated the activities of Navalny’s network of anti-Putin activists and campaigners since the jailing of his boss.

I met Volkov on a scorching August day in Berlin, in a hotel a few streets away from the imposing Soviet-era Russian embassy, built in what was then East Berlin. He was in Germany for meetings with government officials, he told me, though he didn’t reveal their purpose. Like many Russian and Belarusian exiles, he usually lives in Lithuania.

After more than a year in a prison colony, Navalny was moved in June to a higher-security jail with a reputation for prisoner abuse. “His condition is not good,” said Volkov, whose ginger beard is several shades lighter than his dark hair. He added that he worries Navalny could die in prison. “He is in the custody of the very people who tried to kill him two years ago.”

Even so, Volkov vigorously denied that it was a mistake for the opposition leader to return to Russia. “Clearly, Navalny will not get out of prison while Putin is in the Kremlin. Russia is a country too small for these two men.”

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Yet Putin will be ousted from power sooner than many expect, Volkov argued. According to him, this year’s invasion of Ukraine has irrevocably weakened the regime. “Before the war, we might have expected that the most probable scenario for Russia would be a very slow stagnation for 20 years.” This would have seen Putin maintain enough of a grip on power to avoid being ousted (just as Francisco Franco’s regime survived for nearly 40 years in Spain). But, Volkov added, “Putin multiplied the probability of this scenario by zero when he invaded Ukraine… Putinism will come to an end much sooner than was probable before the war.”

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Although Navalny is Putin’s number one domestic opponent, many Ukrainians remain suspicious about the opposition leader’s history of nationalism, particularly his refusal to commit to returning the Crimean peninsula – annexed by Russia in 2014 – to Ukraine. 

“Navalny – at least at the beginning – was very imperialistic,” I was told by Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian MP. “If Navalny supports Russia as an empire, it doesn’t matter to me whether the empire is corrupt or not. Many Russian liberals are liberals only within Russia.”

Before the war, it would have been politically impossible for Navalny to suggest returning Crimea to Ukraine, Volkov said, even though he suggested the opposition leader instinctively favoured such a move. “The political reality was that we saw almost unanimous support for the annexation of Crimea in Russian society – and every Russian politician had to deal with that… [though] we admitted from the first day of the annexation that Crimea is a part of Ukraine according to international law.”

Volkov believes that this year’s invasion of Ukraine – the culmination of a set of “grave mistakes” – has triggered a process that will eventually lead Russians to realise that restoring “peace and trust in international relations” requires Moscow to return Crimea. “When the war is actually lost… there will be a huge wave of national reflection, when everyone will see that the king is naked. The de-Putinisation of Russia will be a painful experience.”

[See also: Are Russian forces in Ukraine exploiting Western fears of a nuclear disaster?]

For Volkov, the overarching goal is clear: the toppling of Putin. The Ukrainians should “receive as much help as possible” from the West as they attempt to recapture the Russian-occupied southern city of Kherson, so that they can “win the war and get rid of Putin”, he told me. Had Navalny somehow won the 2018 presidential election he was barred from contesting, he might have considered returning Crimea to Ukraine, not because reversing an illegal annexation was morally and legally right, but so as to “get rid of sanctions and to reinstate [Russia’s] international credibility”, according to Volkov.

That framing may reflect Volkov’s own politics, but it is also a reflection of the post-invasion reality for the Russian opposition, now entirely marginalised within the country. The few prominent opposition figures who have not fled have been jailed, including the Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza, a close associate of the liberal Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015. The protest movement Navalny harnessed in the past has been crushed. As Volkov alluded to several times during our conversation, the opposition no longer has much influence over the future of the Putin regime. “The fate of Russia will be decided in Ukraine,” Vladislav Davidzon, the author of From Odessa with Love (2021), told me.

Volkov, who is ethnically Jewish and turned to religion in his thirties, reaches for parallels between Putin’s Russia and Nazi Germany several times during our conversation. The fall of Putinism will be “similar to the denazification of Germany after 1945” as the spell cast by the regime’s propaganda over the Russian people dispels, he explained. He compares the annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s annexations of the Sudetenland and Austria – actions that led to “full-scale war”.

Comparisons between the two regimes are popular in the West and Ukraine. Many Ukrainians have taken to referring to the occupiers as “rashists”, a portmanteau of “Russian” and “fascists”. Yet I find myself wondering how the analogy will play in Russia, where the Second World War is central to the country’s national mythology. The anti-Nazi struggle has been elevated into a quasi-religion by Putin, but the wartime suffering of the Russian population – and those of all other Soviet peoples – was not invented by the Kremlin.

A willingness to take positions that may prove politically unpopular is also clear when I raise the prospect of the West lifting sanctions on Russia in exchange for the country withdrawing from occupied Ukrainian territory. “There can be no sanctions relief while Putin is in power,” Volkov bluntly asserted.

Does he worry this uncompromising position will make Navalny’s movement unpopular with the Russian population, which faces economic collapse on a scale not seen since the chaos of the 1990s? “We try hard to explain to [Russians] that their economic position has to be blamed on Putin.” 

But many will surely resent the opposition making improved living standards conditional on the removal of a regime they have no say over. The opposition’s new-found ability to break free of many of the constraints imposed by Putin during his 22 years in power – such as the consensus that Russia has a legitimate claim to Crimea – illustrates how binary the struggle for the future of Russia has become. Yet the invasion of Ukraine showed the world that it needed a total break with Putinism.

Navalny, at the mercy of a near-totalitarian regime that nearly succeeded in murdering him two years ago, has never been more vulnerable. Even so, Volkov continues to believe he will be the man to lead Russia away from its current path.

[See also: How Vladimir Putin views the world]