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‘Surprisingly, I’m Quite Optimistic.’ Navalny’s Chief of Staff on What War In Ukraine Means For Russia

12 minute read

Alexei Navalny, the de-facto leader of the Russian opposition, has been languishing in a Russian prison since February 2021. He was jailed after surviving an assassination attempt, by poisoning, from the Russian security forces while he was campaigning against President Vladimir Putin.

With Navalny in jail, one of the most prominent voices of his banned political movement—the Anti-Corruption Foundation—is Leonid Volkov, who serves as Navalny’s chief of staff. He spoke with TIME over the phone from self-imposed exile in Lithuania about what the war in Ukraine means for the opposition movement in Russia, ahead of a scheduled appearance at the 14th annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy on April 6.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How has the war over the last month changed the strategy of the Navalny movement? How have your political calculations changed in the last month?

On one hand, it didn’t change that much strategically. Our two most important strategic projects for this year were to launch an independent media outlet for the Russian domestic audience, to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda. And second, relaunch the Anti-Corruption Foundation as an international anti-corruption NGO. Because of the war, our plans suddenly became much more up to date than they were before the war. In Russia they just switched off all independent media, and it was so enormously important that we were able to stay in line to counter its propaganda and to keep Russians informed about what’s actually going on.

The second thing was going after Putin’s friends’ assets abroad. We were so pessimistic about our expectations with regard to personal sanctions [sanctions on individuals]. We have been advocating for personal sanctions over four years without major success. Who could expect, one month and one week ago, that the West would be forced to go full steam ahead with sanctioning? We had a list of 35 individuals that we wanted to be sanctioned. It was our most optimistic request. And now, the list of sanctions by the U.K., U.S., and E.U. have over 1,000 names. And of course, all of our 35 are included there. So for a very bad reason, things have gone much beyond our expectations.

Navalny, and your team, have been calling for Russians to protest in their town squares. Can you talk about whether those protests were as widespread as you wanted them to be? And if not, why?

There is a thing that many people in the West don’t understand: the risks that ordinary protesters face in Russia. Now, if you go to protest, you will very likely be detained, highly likely arrested, expelled from university or fired from your job. You are risking a prison term, like real prison, for three or five years. It has changed over the last six years dramatically. Two years ago, the largest risk for a protester was to get arrested for 10 days. Now it’s 15 years. Ten years ago, the largest risk for a protester was to get fined 500 rubles [approx. $6].

Still, over 15,000 people were detained during anti-war rallies in the first couple of weeks, which means that hundreds of thousands of people attended. There were arrests in over 130 Russian cities. And very importantly, every protester in a country like Russia represents maybe a thousand people who are sympathetic but can’t afford to risk going to prison for five years; can’t afford to get fired from their job. So we know that many people are supporting us, but for very natural reasons, because they live in a totalitarian regime, they can’t turn out and participate. For many years, it was completely safe at least to share information about the situation on social media. Now you will risk lengthy imprisonment for this as well.

Read More: The Man Putin Fears

So when the West is asking, why are Russians not protesting? Why are Russians not against Putin? This is a very false assumption. They are. They are fighting. They don’t support Putin. It’s very clear to us. Putin has made the public expression of dissent impossible. But it doesn’t mean that dissent has gone.

Putin has been pursuing a hyper-nationalist narrative that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia. How believable do you think this narrative is for at least some Russians, and how widespread is that belief? Can you compare that to the support for the Navalny movement?

Quantitative research is not possible anymore. We have been running a lot of polling ourselves. We had in-house pollsters, we were doing phone calls. Now people just do not talk. In our latest poll, the response rate dropped below 5%. So, 19 out of 20 respondents wouldn’t talk to a pollster. Because it’s up to a 15 years prison sentence, for just calling the war a war. For not using the term “special military operation,” as Putin does.

So you can’t do quantitative research. But for instance, in the numbers that the Kremlin backed polling agency releases, their numbers suggest that 70% are supporting the war, and 30% are not. Firstly, 30% is still 50 million people, and secondly, of course, their numbers, if not totally made up, are just a very rough estimate from people who agree to talk to the government polling agents. And still one third of them say on the phone that they’re against the war. They are already taking enormous risks. This tells us a lot about the actual state of minds in Russia.

Of course, there are still those who are victims of propaganda. There is a core of hardliners and Putin supporters. I would estimate this to be not more than like 10% of the population. Another 20% to 30% maybe tend to comply with the propaganda because they don’t have access to other opinions. They probably realize that the propaganda is lying to them, because the propaganda is so badly-tailored. The propaganda says Ukrainians eat children alive. These people realize these television personalities are lying to them. But as they are not exposed to a different opinion, they don’t know how to discount it. They might say, ‘Okay, this guy is not telling the truth. Ukrainians probably boil children first before eating them.’

It makes sense why your reaction to that would be to focus on building an independent media outlet. But Putin has been cracking down on independent media and social media platforms too, by banning Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. How have you managed to keep your channels active at a time when Putin is cracking down?

First of all, the crackdown is not full. They have blocked Instagram. But our audience on Instagram has dropped by only 30%, not 97%. So we still have 70% of our audience. We also invested a lot in educating people about VPNs, about circumvention tools. People want to retain their access to independent information.

Telegram is available. WhatsApp is available. Instagram is available for 70% of our audience. And they won’t risk blocking YouTube, because this would also hit an enormous nonpolitical audience. It will make millions of people angry, who watch cartoons with their children. I can imagine that at some point in time they will become so desperate that they will decide to blow up YouTube as well. But for now, I’m quite optimistic that we will be able to maintain contact with the majority of our audience. At the end of the day, as long as Putin doesn’t decide to just switch off the internet in Russia entirely, we’ll find out ways to reach the domestic audience.

Read More: Why YouTube Has Survived Russia’s Social Media Crackdown—So Far

What are your scenarios for the future? Where does the war in Ukraine lead Putin and Russia, and what does that mean for your movement?

There are three basic scenarios, which are the same for pretty much every authoritarian regime. The three scenarios are, first, biological death. Because Putinism is not able to survive after Putin. It’s all built on one single personality. There’s nothing else but Putin in Putinism. Nothing else.

Other than biological death, there is some popular uprising, like black-swan-type event. When they make the public expression of dissent impossible for many years, this could lead to an unpredictable explosion, very suddenly, for some reason that many people would consider irrelevant.

And the third scenario is the political elite, Putin’s inner circle, decides they’re not interested any more to work with him.

So these three scenarios have not changed due to the war in Ukraine. But the probabilities have changed very much. I no longer believe there is a high probability that Putin will be able to balance the system long enough to stay in power until his biological death. So the probabilities of the second and third scenarios have increased dramatically. But I can’t think of a different scenario.

What about in the more medium term? What kind of country is Russia after a long, protracted conflict with Ukraine? And how does the Navalny movement capitalize on that?

You know, in many ways, surprisingly, I’m quite optimistic here. Many things that were impossible before, Putin made possible. Consider Russia after this enormous disastrous war has finally ended, and after Putin is gone. What will be this Russia? What does Russia become? For instance, me and Alexei [Navalny], in our discussions, we were talking a lot about how challenging it will be to exercise political campaigns in a post-Putin Russia, even when there are free elections. Because there will be a huge nostalgic party, a huge party of Putin supporters, that will be present in the parliament. They would get maybe like 20% or 30% of the votes. We would probably be forced to build coalitions with them.

Read More: Ukrainians Blame Russians for the War

So imagine, there was no war. Putin dies. Navalny is released. There are fair elections, and there is a Putinist party, like the Francoists in Spain after [dictator Francisco] Franco, or even like the Gaullists in France after [President Charles] De Gaulle. Okay, the authoritarian leader has gone. But for many people, there will be a lot of nostalgia. Now, this is ruled out. In post-war Russia, Putin’s party will be non-existent. This will be like how the Nazi party didn’t exist in Germany in the 1950s and 60s. We will have our version of the Nuremberg trials. After the crimes of Putin’s regime are made clear and explained to everyone, people will learn in high school about what Putin did and who he actually was.

Many people ask, when Navalny becomes President, what will he do with Crimea? And the question is not very easy. On one hand, the annexation of Crimea was a crime against Russian interests, a violation of international treaties, it caused sanctions, it caused isolation. On the other hand, unfortunately, the idea of the annexation of Crimea was so popular among many Russian voters between 2014 and 2021. Imagine any next President of Russia. If they were publicly advocating for the idea of giving Crimea back to Ukraine—before this war, they would probably be ousted. We hope the Russia of the future will be a democracy, and in a democracy, the opinion of the voters counts, and is important. And this created a very complicated puzzle for the next president. Well, now I believe that after this war, it’ll be very clear that in order to rebuild relations with Ukraine, to return to the civilized world, Russia will just have to do it. It will be clear for everyone that it was like the first of Putin’s crimes, very clearly connected with other painful crimes that he committed.

These are just two examples. But my idea is that if the war had not happened, many things would not easily be resolved in Post-Putin Russia. Suddenly, now there is a way for a better solution.

We always thought Russia would have to be rebuilt from scratch. No one from within this judiciary, no one from within this law enforcement could stay in power. They violated all possible rules. They killed people, they tortured people, they imprisoned people. And our opponents were saying, how is this possible? It’s like rebuilding the country from scratch, where will you find new policemen and new judges and stuff? Now, no one would object. The Putin power vertical has failed completely. The only chance to rebuild Russia is to go through a full scale restructuring. And now finally, it’s really clear for everybody. And that’s a really important development.

The German economic wonder in the 50s and the 60s wouldn’t have been possible if Hitler had died in 1939 after the invasion of Poland, but before every other development. If the Holocaust had not happened, if the Second World War did not really happen to its full extent, so many people would still be nostalgic in Germany for Hitler. So many people would say, ‘okay, he was basically right.’ Once again, it’s just an example, and historical parallels are sometimes misleading.

Final question: how is Navalny doing? Has your prognosis for his survival changed?

The situation has changed once again, because we considered Putin to be rational. Putin knew the world was watching, and knew that causing harm to him would be very dangerous, lead to sanctions and so on. Now, unfortunately, we have learned that Putin doesn’t give a damn about sanctions and isn’t actually rational. It is very clear that since the war has started, risks for Alexei have increased dramatically. He is in custody of people who tried to kill him a year and a half ago. And we know that these people are quite crazy and have no limitations.

Despite this, I know Alexei is brave and is not going to give up. He’s actively involved in our operations. As long as we are able to maintain contact with him through lawyers, he is always sending new ideas and inventing new projects. He anticipates, I believe, that the risks have increased. But it’s not a legitimate reason to change his behavior.

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Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com