On his return from Germany, where he recuperated from an attempt on his life by Russian secret services, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested at the airport and sentenced to 30 days in prison for allegedly violating the “probation terms” of a suspended sentence from a 2014 conviction on a bogus money-laundering charge.
Navalny’s decision to return to Russia to certain arrest was a heroic choice. But, rather than a purely quixotic gesture, it was likely a calculated risk by a popular leader with a long track record of smart political strategies.
First, Navalny had to go back in order to remain relevant. Even in this era of Zoom sessions and podcasts, being physically out of Russia leads to the erosion of moral authority and thus a quick hemorrhaging of political authority. (Which is why, faced with a choice of forced emigration or jail, Soviet dissidents tended to choose the latter as well). In addition to affirming his de-facto leadership of the opposition, his return is an inspiration to hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of Russians who continue to believe in a brighter future for their country.
Second, Navalny has attempted an in vivo test of Russia’s direction. Exacerbated by COVID-19, the economic stagnation of the past 10 years and equally bleak prospects for the future have eroded Putin’s performance legitimacy, which between 2000 and 2011 cemented his astronomic popularity by the steady growth of incomes. In the absence of democratic legitimacy and embarking on a lifetime presidency, Putin is facing a fundamental choice.
He could try and turn Russia into a police state, like that of his friend Xi Jinping’s, attended with blanket internet censorship, as well as arrests and lengthy or even lethal sentences for opposition leaders, starting with Navalny. Or, increasing repression selectively and piecemeal, Putin may still allow some measure of civil society and media independence from the state, while at the same time seeking to recover popularity and legitimacy by increasingly brazen confrontation with the West.
Both options carry substantial risks for the Kremlin, as well as Russia’s neighbors and the West. Yet Putin’s final choice is not clear, perhaps even to himself. Navalny is forcing the Kremlin dictator’s hand: Putin’s blinking first and letting Navalny out of prison in a month would be an undeniable victory for the democratic opposition.
Developing his pioneering anti-polio vaccine in the early 1950’s, Dr. Jonas Salk tested it on himself, his wife, and their children. Alexei Navalny, too, has just risked his life to gauge and shape his country’s future.
This article first appeared at the American Enterprise Institute.