Russian Opposition: Friends Or Foes?

Narratives from the Russian opposition are less critical of Moscow’s policies than many realise

8 February 2023

Bohdan Bernatskyi

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Members of the Russian opposition are trying to blame exclusively Putin and his clique for waging an aggressive war and, in so doing, are rejecting Russian society’s responsibility. Is this justifiable?

The Russian opposition, as well as Russian authorities, are a clear mirror of Russian society. In European societies, the ruling government fears the opposition and carries out its policy with an eye on opponents who can take on the government in the next election cycle. This is irrelevant to Russian political life.

The Russian opposition, who are sometimes called liberals, are perceived in Russian society as a marginalised group, rather than as a political competitor to the authorities.

There are many reasons for the current state of affairs. Regardless, some Europeans still consider leaders of Russian institutionalised opposition as prospective politicians for the future Russian state.

Top members of Navalny’s team are invited to forums and meetings with EU politicians, former Russian politicians who went against Putin are now presented as leaders of democratic Russia, and “liberal” YouTube bloggers, including Maxym Katz and Yury Dud, or so-called free media such as Dozhd or Meduza are widely cited and reposted by Russian emigrants. But we should question their status.

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Opposition rhetoric prior 24 February 2022 had been focused exclusively on the anti-corruption agenda. The problems Russians face, however, are much wider than corruption in Putin’s inner circle.

Nevertheless, the “liberals” were not able to go beyond anti-corruption messages and thus, intentionally or not, limiting their group of supporters. At the same time, Kremlin chauvinism leaked out through opposition representatives as well. The occupation of Ukrainian Crimea, which was described by Navalny as an illegally acquired but indivisible part of Russia, is a striking example. For an ordinary Russian citizen, it was hard to see differences between Putin and top opposition leaders who were of the same mindset.

Russian opposition leaders also consider that the life of a Ukrainian soldier costs less than that of a Russian citizen. Why so? Russian political oppositionists permanently ask their citizens not to take risks, to avoid visits to military commissariats and, for instance, to not trust Russian state media.

However, they eagerly comment on how Ukrainians are fighting the Russian Army while not wanting their supporters to do the same because they can be sentenced to prison. For the Russian opposition, the deaths of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are not as critical as the imprisonment of their own citizens.

Since the times of Bolotnaya riots, the Russian opposition as a phenomenon began to turn into a tragicomedy. The Kremlin gradually made a mockery of Russian liberals and, more importantly, Navalny, the Dozhd TV channel and company were not against this scenario. Instead of boycotts and insurgency, so-called liberals continued playing under more and more discriminatory rules contemptuously imposed by Putin.

I cannot but recall that the Dozhd TV channel, which works in the EU, is still labelling itself as a foreign agent. In so doing, the channel is trying to comply with Russian legislation, showing disrespect to EU principles of free media.

Why does the Russian leadership give orders to destroy Ukrainian infrastructure? Because much of the Russian population is bloodthirsty for such stories and narratives.

But opposition leaders like Navalny and others deliberately do not see this: for them, the Russians are hostages, not accomplices in a crime. This is a significant mental difference which demonstrates a lack of will for reflection. They, the opposition, believe that excusing the Russian people will earn them more sympathy. They prefer to remain silent about who is launching missiles on Ukraine, average Russian citizens dressed in military fatigues or Putin himself. This I can describe as “медвежья услуга” (Russians will understand) for Russian society.

Could the Russian opposition rally mass protests against the Kremlin?

How many people were the Russian opposition forces able to mobilise at the point at which large-scale invasion was launched or when Putin adopted a decree on “partial” mobilisation? The answers will be rather grim.

For instance, there were reports of about 1300 detained as a result of protests against the mobilisation decree. The inability to gather supporters is the result of the failure of protests in Bolotnaya square back in 2012. Since those times, the Russian opposition has not been able to bring out to the streets more than a few thousand supporters. The only case of people’s demonstrations between 2012-2023 was related to the arrest of Furgal, the governor in Khabarovsk, to which the opposition was not tangential.

The mobilisation campaign, it seems now, is not a big deal for Putin. His Keystone Cops in Moscow already conscripted an additional 300,000 troops during the first way of mobilisation. The second mobilisation, according to Ukrainian intelligence, has been launched with the aim to enlist 500,000 more draftees. It appears that it is much easier to send millions of Russians to partake in an unjustified war than it is to gather a few thousand dissidents in Moscow. This also provides us with an answer to the existential question, Do the Russians want war? This is a question on which the Russian opposition is consistently silent.

Another problem is the decay of the Russian opposition camp. Navalny’s team is becoming disordered. The second year of Navalny’s imprisonment has severely affected the competency and human resources of his team.

Whether it is a matter of strategy or personal ambitions, Navalny’s Youtube content has become less interesting and less professional. Members of the core Navalny team are opening or relying more on their own YouTube channels and brands. For instance, the opening of the media channel “Popular Politics” (about 1.8 mln subscribers) competes with “Navalny Live” (3 mln subscribers). Milov, for instance, is recording more and more personal videos and now rarely appears on Navalny-labeled channels. The media activities of Sobol or Volkov can be similarly characterised.

The “how” question is unanswered

Russian liberals are able to answer many questions on the political agenda. The endless tirade of thoughts on the future of Russia is the best exercise they do on blogs and interviews. It reminds me of a discussion at a psychotherapy session where a speaker is a listener at the same time.

On their Youtube channels, you can easily find well-documented cases of corruption by Russian officials or see how poorly Russian “chmobics” (conscripted Russians under partial mobilisation, “частичная мобилизация – чмобик”) are equipped.

Milov, for instance, is recording compelling streams about the failure of Russian democracy, but when he was asked about reparations to Ukraine, his voice became hard and perplexed. He started talking in circles, fantasising about Europeans paying reparations to Ukraine from confiscated Russian funds…

Volkov, a Navalny aide, goes further, claiming that a Marshall Plan should be given not only to Ukraine but also to Russia. In this way, in his opinion, Russian people will not feel offended. (Sigh)… And this is only considering the crème de la crème of Russian liberals and their understanding of the concept of responsible policy and responsibility itself.

Yashin is another symbol of courage and obtuseness. He, in fact, voluntarily went to prison. This resulted in a quietly paradoxical scene when he hired attorneys in order to protect his rights in the court (better to call it a show trial). Thus, he somehow legitimised the criminal process against him.

However, a few months ago, he commented that his fellow Russian opposition member Alexei Gorinov was arbitrarily arrested, and he was awaiting the same fate. And yet, no attempts were made to fight back or, at least, to cause damage to the regime. Indeed, there is the darkly comic fact that Yashin, in his final plea, admired the judge who sentenced him to 8 years. Does an opposition unwilling to fight oppressors deserve another fate? The question is rhetorical.

What you will never find in the speeches or statements of Russian liberals is an answer to the following question: how to remove Putin from the presidential throne. Once asked, they look numb and disappointed. Numerous appeals to remove Putin are made without explanation or any plan. I can count only two or three members of the Russian opposition who openly declare that the only pathway to regime change is by means of revolution. If this is so, the use of force against Putin’s regime becomes unavoidable.

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The campaign in recent days [on January 21-23rd] to free Navalny and other opponents of Putin is senseless and seems more like a cry of despair. I hardly understand the idea of releasing political prisoners if the regime continues to exist or if Putin can easily recruit new chmobics to the Wagner group in the prison where Navalny served his sentence.

That is the irony. The Russian President routinely orders a hundred Russian men to die near Bakhmut or Soledar. Why should he then be anxious about forty Russian emigrants protesting in Canada or Germany? Russian emigrants have chosen to see how Ukrainians fight and support our war for freedom by reposting Facebook posts.

What comes next, and where to find “good” Russians

I do not wish to only shame Russian liberals who act in the interests of ego. The idea is more than criticising weak people who, under the pressure of a historical moment, became an alternative for the Russian future. My idea is to look beyond Navalny and TV Dozhd, Yashin or Meduza.

There is evidence that Russian citizens are more willing to support protests that have no leaders or political labels. As a result, the idea of a Navalny or, accidentally, Yashin’s leadership in post-war Russia is highly questionable. More questionable again is the idea of any temporary international administrations because they only have a place if Moscow is defeated, as were the Nazis in WWII. Ukrainians show respect for the international legal order and have little interest in managing the internal affairs of a collapsing neighbour, too.

Who can be a visible alternative to Russian oppositionists who have relocated to Europe or are voluntarily being imprisoned in Russia? Not many options exist. Even so, we could, for instance, consider representatives of the oppressed people from Russian republics and autonomous regions as a potential substitution for the previously discussed Russian opposition representatives. More attention should be paid to national minorities and the decolonisation of the Russian empire state model once the war ends.

The Russian opposition, which waits for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to beat the Putin regime and then peacefully jumps into the new Russian political landscape, does not deserve this right. They should pay the price together if they are not sincerely willing to overthrow the dictatorship. Sitting in safe European havens and broadcasting about the future of Russia is simply not enough. The current opposition is broken, and unfortunately, new Russian democratic leaders are yet to emerge.




Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Featured image created by Galan Dall, using “Alexey Navalny” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Mitya Aleshkovsky

Bohdan Bernatskyi

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Bohdan Bernatskyi is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. As a Senior Lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (and Ostroh Academy) he teaches Diplomatic Law, Public International Law, Countermeasures and Law of Treaties. In 2019, he defended PhD thesis on banning political parties in Ukraine and abroad. Since then, Bohdan has become a member of the Parliamentary working group on reforming party legislation in Ukraine. Bohdan serves as an independent Legal Consultant at Project Expedite Justice (2022-currently), Future of Ukraine Fellow at Visegrad Insight (2022-currently). He was a Legal Adviser to Ukrainian MPs (2020-2022), and Democracy Reporting International (2015-2019). His professional track of record includes thorough expertise in the fields of sanctions and transitional justice initiatives. He is the author of the complex changes to Ukrainian sanctions infrastructure which aimed at converging UA foreign policy tools to EU best practices. Given EU candidate status to Ukraine, the idea to deepen cooperation within EU-UA CFSP, including sanctions, will gain more currency. Bohdan participated as an Independent Expert in the transitional reform group launched by the Ministry of Reintegration of Ukraine. All efforts related to building solutions for sustainable peaceful reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine was brutally interrupted by Russia on February 24th, 2022. The aftermath of the war will require harder approaches to transitional measures and Bohdan will contribute to this development.

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