Alexei Navalny would have known with near certainty that the chance he’d walk out of a Moscow jail as a free man after his latest appeal hearing was remote.
So, instead, the Russian opposition leader used his appearance Thursday via video conference to go over the heads of his jailers — and the Putin government — to send a message of encouragement to his supporters ahead of rallies his team has called for Sunday.
“You won’t frighten us,” said Navalny, speaking directly to Russia’s leaders in the Kremlin and those in charge of its vast security apparatus.
“You won’t manage to frighten dozens of millions of people who were robbed by those in power. We won’t allow a bunch of villains to impose their rules on our country. “
More than 100,000 people took to the streets of more than 120 towns and cities last weekend in the most extensive protests Russia has seen in decades, with the crowds calling for Navalny to be freed.
The 44-year-old lawyer turned anti-corruption crusader turned politician was thrown in jail after he returned to Russia earlier this month after recovering in Germany following an attempt on his life last summer.
He accuses the country’s security services of trying to kill him with a nerve agent, and Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering the hit.
However, Navalny’s defiant words from the jailhouse only served to underscore the lopsided nature of the collision between him and Putin.
“The regime has barely started to unpack its vast tool kit of intimidation,” Carnegie Moscow Centre scholar Alexander Gabuev wrote in a thread on social media.
“And that’s why it’s wishful thinking to portray a 40k crowd in Moscow (with a population of nearly 13 million) or St. Petersburg (with more than 5 million) as a real danger to the regime.”
He said if Putin’s FSB, a security force and successor to the KGB, really did attempt to assassinate Navalny with a deadly nerve agent — as evidence gathered by the journalism collective Bellingcat suggests — then it’s hard to see how protests will be enough to convince authorities to let him go.
In the last week, Russia’s government has demonstrated some — but not all — of the countermeasures it is deploying to suppress the Navalny-inspired protests.
On Wednesday, police raided the homes of several of his allies, including his wife, Yulia, and his brother, Oleg, as well as the broadcast offices of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).
It was responsible for producing the video Putin’s Palace, a two-hour-long investigation into an opulent mansion on the edge of the Black Sea that Navalny claims was built for Russia’s president using $1.35 billion US in public funds that were siphoned off by corrupt business cronies.
The video has racked up 100 million views on YouTube.
Some Navalny aides, including press secretary Kira Yarmysh, were given jail terms of a week or more.
Russian authorities have also tried to leverage the education system to prevent young people from heeding the call to protest by threatening expulsion from schools or universities.
After thousands of Russian teenagers posted TikTok messages of support for Navalny, the Education Ministry organized meetings for parents to have their kids analyzed by a psychiatrist.
The government’s social media team has also been busy, pushing out hundreds of pro-Putin videos to try to suppress turnout for future demonstrations.
Some videos feature young people professing their loyalty to Russia’s president while others contain apologies from protesters who express regret for taking part in protests.
The Kremlin has also tried to crack down on social media platforms that have posted anti-government messages.
Roskomnadzor, the country’s internet censor, announced it will fine companies such as TikTok and Facebook for not taking down posts that encouraged people to attend the protests last weekend.
After ignoring Navalny for years, Russian state TV programs have suddenly unleashed a barrage of anti-Navalny propaganda accusing him of everything from corruption to poisoning the minds of children to repeating a long-standing accusation that he works for the CIA.
The TV stations have also been playing pro-Kremlin messages, including an over-the-top promotional video made by Russian retailer Sima-Land. It features staff in uniforms dancing in unison, waving their hands and professing their love for Russia’s president.
It concludes with a dramatic musical flourish and the words: “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], we are with you.”
Сотрудники «Сима-ленда» снялись в новом патриотическом видео. В конце можно услышать: «Владимир Владимирович, мы с вами». <a href=”https://t.co/5sRWEvPOYD”>pic.twitter.com/5sRWEvPOYD</a>
Threat of force
Then there’s the outright threat of violence to try to deter people from taking to the streets.
At the big protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg last Saturday, police were largely restrained and the confrontations between riot squads and protesters were relatively mild — at least by Russian standards — although more than 4,000 people were arrested.
But the readiness to use brutal force by heavily armed and omnipresent security forces remains a potentially powerful deterrent.
Still, Navalny’s advocates say they believe the Kremlin’s hand isn’t as strong as it may appear.
In an interview with CBC News, Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician who promotes a stronger civil society in Russia, said Putin’s regime has relied on repression, propaganda and the passive acquiescence of society to remain in power.
“The two latter factors are no longer there. The propaganda is still [in place] but its effectiveness is no longer what it once was, and society is silent no longer,” he said.
“There is only so much time the Putin regime can win for itself by standing on force alone, and that is all they have left — they have lost this young generation in Russia.”
Kara-Murza said he believes the Kremlin is most worried about Navalny’s ability to mobilize people to vote against pro-government candidates in key parliamentary elections later this year.
The so-called Smart Voting tactics call for voters to pick the opposition candidate who has the best chance of winning, regardless of their party label or ideology.
The measure has had some success at the local and regional level, but the elections in September are seen as a key test.
For years, pro-Kremlin commentators have vilified Navalny for being a traitor, arguing that he’s trying to provoke a “Maidan”-style uprising in Russia.
That’s a reference to the wave of protests and unrest that led to the 2014 overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russia leader, Viktor Yanukovych, and the country’s subsequent attempt to pivot away from Russia to the West. More than 130 people were killed in violence associated with the uprising, a spectre the Kremlin often raises to try to convince Russians they are far better off sticking with the system and the president they have now.
Other Russia watchers remain unconvinced the rapidly changing political dynamic in Russia poses a significant threat to Putin’s reign.
“Mass protests, as such, rarely achieve political changes,” political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann said in a forum organized by the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University College London.
She said a more likely possibility is the protests gradually increase the strain on Russia’s political system to the point where elites within the Kremlin decide they have more to lose than gain by backing Putin.
“Coups are more common than popular revolts in autocracies,” she said.
While that might offer a partial victory for the pro-Navalny forces, it would also keep the existing power system — and its built-in biases against Navalny — intact.