Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year reignited a longstanding debate about the place the Russian opposition occupies in the context of Russian aggression in the post-Soviet space. Russian opposition activists and some observers have contended that Russian expansionism can stop only through regime change and democratisation, ostensibly led by the Russian opposition.
Ukrainians, and many of their supporters from post-Soviet countries that have experienced Russian imperialism firsthand, tend to disagree. They do not see the Russian opposition – and more specifically its most prominent leader today, Alexey Navalny – as future guarantors of peace.
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To explain why, I would first like to relay an exchange I had with members of Navalny’s movement, or “Navalnists” as they are called in Russian, back in 2015.
It happened at a closed event at a British think tank in which a Ukrainian colleague of mine spoke about the transformation of cultural values in Ukraine after the 2014 revolution and the beginning of the Russian aggression. Among the attendees were two Russians, who were touring Britain as representatives of Navalny’s movement. After the talk was done, my colleague and I had a chance to have a brief chat with them.
As one might expect, we questioned them about the remarks Navalny made on Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in March 2014. In an interview with Echo of Moscow radio station in October 2014, Navalny admitted that the peninsula had been seized through “outrageous violations of all international norms”, and yet asserted that it would “remain part of Russia” and would “never become part of Ukraine in the foreseeable future”.
His statement was not simply an assessment of the developments around Crimea. When pressed on whether he would return Crimea to Ukraine were he to become Russia’s president, Navalny wrapped his “No” in an odd rhetorical question: “What? Is Crimea a sandwich or something that you can take and give back?” It was clear that his political position on Crimea was that it should “remain part of Russia”.
It is important to point out that our conversation with the two Navalnists took place less than half a year after the assassination of prominent Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin. The murder of Nemtsov, who vocally opposed Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, allowed Navalny to emerge as the main Russian opposition leader still attempting to do politics in Russia.
The other major opponent of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, lived in exile in London and was not directly involved in Russian politics.
Hence, it was not unreasonable to imagine at that time that any regime change in Russia, if it were to happen, would be led by Navalny. That is why we wanted to know what Ukraine should expect from “the wonderful Russia of the future”, as Navalny likes to call post-Putin Russia.
The Navalnists responded that under a democratically elected government, Moscow would keep Crimea despite the fact that the annexation was illegal. That is because their policies would have to reflect the will of the Russian people and the overwhelming majority of Russians wanted Crimea to be within Russian borders.
But there was more to it. We contended that the West would never recognise the annexation of Crimea and that the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity would not only improve relations between Russia and the West but would also help repair relations between Russia and Ukraine. The Navalnists’ response was that “the wonderful Russia of the future” would find ways to smooth relations with the West without rectifying the injustice done to Ukraine.
Ukraine, in other words, might be an immediate victim of Putin’s regime, and yet – even when he is gone – it would remain a victim of Russian colonialism because the latter was popular not only among regime supporters but also among “Russian democrats”. As Volodymyr Vynnychenko, one of the central figures of the Ukrainian national liberation movement in 1917-1919, insightfully noted a century ago, “Russian democracy ends where the Ukrainian question begins”.
As Navalny became the face of the Russian opposition to Putin – a face increasingly recognised as such not only in Russia but also in the West – Ukrainians grew wary. At that time, the West backed democratisation and modernisation in Ukraine and offered some support for the country’s struggle against Russian aggression. “But what would become of that if Navalny were to come to power in Russia?” we asked ourselves.
As Navalny definitely enjoyed, at the very least, moral support from Western leaders, his rise to power in Russia could conceivably lead to a reset in Western-Russian relations, leaving Ukraine out in the cold. Many feared that Ukraine would no longer matter to Western leaders if they had someone nicer than Putin to talk to.
And there was already a precedent. In August 2008, Russia – then under the leadership of Dmitry Medvedev – invaded Georgia and occupied the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The West brokered a peace agreement which was not only highly unfavourable to Georgia but was also not honoured by Russia.
And yet, half a year later, the Obama administration offered Medvedev – who, at that time, appeared more progressive than Putin – a “reset” in an attempt to improve relations between the US and Russia. This move which was generally welcomed by West European governments essentially meant “wiping the slate clean” and, thus, implied that Russia’s occupation of Georgian regions would not be contested.
Navalny, as Ukrainians and liberal Russians remember well, vehemently supported the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and even used derogatory, dehumanising terms to refer to the Georgian people. Several years later, he would apologise for the terms he used, but never for his support of the Russian war on Georgia.
Navalny was nominally against the Russian aggression in Ukraine, but his “anti-war” position was underpinned by economic, rather than moral, considerations: “Russia can ill afford waging the war”. That position expectedly did not entail any empathy towards the Ukrainian people – something that was also reflected in his use of ethnic slurs against them.
He saw the Russian people as victims of injustice under Putin’s regime, not the Ukrainians. In his view, no wrong had been committed against Ukraine that was worth righting.
In the following years, as the Russian aggression in Ukraine turned into a frozen conflict, Navalny and his team focused on exposing the corruption of Putin’s regime through a series of high-profile investigations. Ahead of the 2018 presidential elections, these sensational revelations started to annoy the Kremlin in the most serious manner.
Navalny and his followers were subjected to regular physical attacks and short-term arrests. The Kremlin had clearly come to believe that his political movement posed a threat to the regime and decided to destroy it.
It seemed to make sense for Ukrainians to offer support for Navalny’s movement, at least tactical if not strategic, as it could potentially destabilise Putin’s regime and subvert its war machine. But the troubles of Navalny and his followers did not resonate with Ukrainians, as his past remarks, as well as the Navalnists’ arrogance and disdain, offered little hope that “the wonderful Russia of the future” would have any respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Even after the Russian authorities poisoned Navalny with a nerve agent and later imprisoned him on politically-motivated charges, few Ukrainians softened their stances.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, followed by the massive crackdown on the remnants of anti-Putin opposition in Russia, dramatically changed the views on Ukraine many Russian critics of the Putin regime held, including Navalny’s team.
As the majority of Navalnists were forced to seek refuge in the West, where many influential figures adopted a “Ukraine First” policy in communicating with self-identified “Russian democrats”, the Navalnists could no longer afford to publicly express their disdain for Ukraine because they risked losing all Western sympathy towards their movement.
In late February 2023, Navalny’s team published a 15-point manifesto that sought to clear much of the controversy around their views of Ukraine. Importantly, the manifesto acknowledged the internationally recognised borders of Ukraine, implying the need for the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea and all other currently occupied Ukrainian territories.
The document also insisted on withdrawing all Russian troops from Ukraine, offering reparations, investigating war crimes in cooperation with international institutions, and ultimately letting Ukraine live and develop as Ukrainians want.
For many Ukrainians, however, this change of heart is well past its due date. In today’s Ukraine, very few believe that the Russian aggression can be stopped by anti-Putin activism, even one that is unambiguously pro-Ukrainian.
In this war, Ukrainians rely on their own fighting spirit and Western support. What happens to Russia after its much-anticipated military defeat in Ukraine is not of much concern. This may appear short-sighted, but the war is understandably a more pressing issue.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.