Read: A KGB man to the end
Unexpectedly, Navalny recovered. Not only did he recover, but he emerged well enough to star, once again, in one of the videos that have made him and his team of researchers famous. He has often targeted members of the Russian elite, picking apart their elaborate webs of corruption, making fun of their money and their taste. In January he targeted Putin himself, revealing the details of the dictator’s lush palace on the Black Sea: an indoor ice-hockey rink, a hookah bar, extensive vineyards, an “aqua-discotheque,” and an elaborate shakedown scheme that paid for it all. That two-hour exposé was released just as Navalny flew back into Russia and was placed under arrest. It circulated as he sat through a “trial” so ludicrous that he mocked the judge out loud, telling her she needed to take more legal courses. The video is still circulating now, as Navalny lies in a prison hospital where he may once again be close to death. As of this writing, it has 116 million views.
Nothing is secret about the poisoning, false trial, or harsh imprisonment of Navalny. Like the multiple attempts to murder him, these things are playing out in public, in the open, for everyone to see. While they unfold, Russian prosecutors are seeking to outlaw the organizations he leads, on the grounds that investigative reporting and defense of citizens’ rights are “extremist.” Putin’s overt attempt to destroy a political opponent has a logic: If Navalny is showing his countrymen how to be courageous, Putin wants to show them that courage is useless.
This kind of behavior is nothing new: A similarly brazen logic lay behind Putin’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in 2014, his subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and his continuing pursuit of a low-level war that still smolders in eastern Ukraine. These aggressive military actions followed a series of pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests that persuaded Ukraine’s dictatorial, pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee the country. Putin’s response was part old-fashioned nationalism—the Ukrainians had undermined his vision of a new Russian empire—and part domestic politics. It was intended to show not just Ukrainians but Russians that democracy leads to violence, that anti-corruption protests will be crushed, and, above all, that courage is useless.
In fact, once you understand this logic—once you understand that Putin’s main concern is his own survival—many of his otherwise inexplicable actions make sense. They also help explain why he is slowly seeking to dismantle what remains of independent media in Russia, including his decision to make it impossible for the journalists of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to function in the country any longer. The news service, backed with American money but editorially independent of the U.S. government, has operated out of Moscow for 30 years, ever since Boris Yeltsin invited its reporters in following the collapse of the Soviet Union; soon its Russian service may once again be broadcasting from abroad. Jamie Fly, RFE/RL’s president—recently restored to his job after the Trump administration forced him out—told me that this is happening just as the radio’s journalists are getting more traction with Russian audiences. RFE/RL reporters were on the ground during the demonstrations in Belarus last summer, were with Navalny on his flight back to Moscow, and have covered every aspect of his trial and imprisonment. Until recently, Putin diplomatically left the news service alone—after all, the United States tolerates the presence of much more heavily controlled Russian state media, including the channel RT—but now Putin cannot tolerate any real journalism at all.