A day before the Russian politician and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny collapsed – in what appears to be a case of poisoning – he was asked a dark, but common question, ‘Why aren’t you dead?’
The question is a serious one. Those who oppose Putin and his entourage often wind up dead under suspicious circumstances. Politicians who threaten him, like Boris Nemtsov, and those who object to the misappropriation of their nations wealth, like the tax advisor Sergei Magnitsky, are particularly vulnerable.
The answer Navalny gave was, reportedly, that he was not yet dead because his death would make him a martyr for his cause and therefore destabilise Putin’s regime. Regardless of whether this analysis is correct, Navalny’s death would be a major blow for those who want to see Russia achieve a semblance of democracy and transparent government.
Navalny’s ability to critique the Putin regime for its corruption and anti-democratic practices has made him a threat to the existing order. It should not be forgotten that Putin initially derived much of his continuing, if now dipping, support based around the fact that he challenged the power of the corrupt oligarchs of the Yeltsin era. These were men who became rich off the backs of the poorly managed privatisations of state-owned enterprises after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During Putin’s rule however, it has become more and more clear that he has not eliminated the corrupt practices of the 1990s.
Instead, he has replaced them with a new equally corrupt elite based around the vestiges of the security bureaucracy. Navalny’s work on this new corruption, through well-produced YouTube videos about officials like ex-PM Medvedev, has helped to counter the image of the man who took back the nation from the oligarchs. The success of such activism is made clear by the 2017 Protests which were triggered by Navalny’s release of a video exposing Medvedev’s corruption and decadent lifestyle. A recent poll has shown that more Russians now view Putin as representing the interests of tycoons, bankers and big business than even Russia’s security forces.
This is because much of the security elite have become the new oligarchs.
The UK government has recently shown a willingness to sanction the Putin regime. In July, it was announced that they would be unveiling sanctions on certain members of the regime. These sanctions would target ‘25 Russian nationals involved in the mistreatment and death of auditor Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered widespread Russian corruption by a group of Russian tax and police officials’.
This is certainly a start. The bipartisan retributions to officials responsible for Magnitsky’s ill treatment, in the form of the US Magnitsky Act – authorizes the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the country – was a good template for the UK to have used in their recent decision. Despite this undoubtedly important step, politicians and sympathisers of men like Navalny in the West have too often bemoaned Putin’s most egregious attempts to stifle opposition, without seriously proposing solutions. Whilst freezing assets and banning entrance to the UK for certain officials is a start, we should now be proactive in continuing Navalny’s work in directly exposing the kind of corruption endemic within Putin’s cadres.
When the Skripal Poisoning happened at Salisbury Cathedral in 2018, there were discussions about whether the UK should respond using the kind of cyberwarfare that the Russian state relies upon. Suggested targets included Russian “fake news” websites and critical national infrastructure.
Neither of these would be ideal. The kind of sites that traffic in disinformation could easily be re-created. Meanwhile, attacking critical national infrastructure would not only be a severe and potentially dangerous escalation, but would also put our own infrastructure at risk. Likewise, it could have the unintended consequence of increasing support for Putin amongst the Russian population.
No matter how much we may dislike Putin’s bellicosity, allowing him to position himself as the defender of Russian interests only bolsters his domestic support. For instance, his illegal annexation of Crimea saw his approval rating climb to 84%. Therefore, the solution is that the UK should use its cyber capacity to target Russian officials and state institutions to to find evidence of corruption and pass this information to the Russian people. During the Cold War, the US attempted to reach the Russian people directly by creating broadcasters like Voice of America radio service. With the internet, the UK would not even have to go to such lengths to disseminate information. They could merely copy Navalny tactics and upload evidence to platforms like YouTube where they would be readily accessible. Expanded powers now allow GCHQ to target entire communication networks overseas, and they should be used against Putin’s cronies.
The UK has played defence for too long. In 2018, the National Cyber Security Centre had to help the FA protect themselves from threats of Russian hacking during the World Cup. Recently, there have been reports that hackers linked to the Russian state have been attempting to target COVID-19 vaccine research in the UK. The Russia Report concluded that the ‘UK, as a Western democracy, cannot allow Russia to flout the Rules Based International Order without there being commensurate consequences.’
Navalny rightly describes Putin’s United Russia Party as a ‘party of crooks and thieves’. The UK must help Navalny prove this claim and empower the people of Russia themselves to hold the government that is robbing them to account.