- A top aide to Alexei Navalny says Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine “speeds up his demise.”
- “The people in the political and economic elite have seen their lifestyles turned upside down,” Vladimir Ashurkov told Insider.
- The war has united much of the world against Russia, isolating Moscow politically and economically.
A top aide of the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny says Russian President Vladimir Putin has accelerated his own downfall by launching an unprovoked war in Ukraine.
“The beginning of the end of Putin started some time ago. But I’m confident that this war has made many people in Russia and outside of Russia unhappy with him. The people in the political and economic elite have seen their lifestyles turned upside down, their fortunes decimated,” Vladimir Ashurkov, the executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, told Insider.
Putin’s war in Ukraine has led countries across the globe to impose broad, unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia. The conflict has united the West in major ways and reinvigorated the NATO military alliance. The international community has also turned against Moscow, with the UN General Assembly voting in early April to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
Two months after the February 24 invasion, the Russian military has struggled to make any major gains and has turned its attention to the eastern Donbas region after failing to take Kyiv. It’s estimated that up to 15,000 Russia troops have been killed in Ukraine so far, with a staggering number of Russian generals among the dead.
Even with Navalny imprisoned, the Kremlin critic’s organization senses an opportunity and is working to counter Russian propaganda that obscures or denies the brutal realities of the Ukraine war, while continuing to investigate corruption among Putin’s inner circle.
“This makes Putin highly unpopular and it affects everybody. I do believe that this speeds up his demise,” Ashurkov said.
‘It was never really easy for Russian opposition ever’
But taking down Putin, who has been in power for roughly two decades, will not happen overnight.
The Russian leader has gone to extraordinary lengths to quash opposition and stifle dissent. Navalny, the Kremlin’s most prominent critic, is a prime example. The anti-corruption campaigner was poisoned in Siberia with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in August 2020 and nearly died. Putin has been condemned worldwide over Navalny’s poisoning, though he’s denied any involvement.
After receiving treatment in Germany, Navalny returned to Moscow in early 2021 and was promptly arrested. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating parole, including during treatment in Germany, from a 2014 embezzlement conviction. His imprisonment led to mass protests in Russia.
Last month, Navalny saw nine years added to his sentence by a judge who was personally promoted by Putin to a higher court just days before. Human-rights groups have decried the charges against Navalny as politically motivated.
Navalny has continued to criticize Putin from prison and has called on Russians to vehemently oppose the war in Ukraine. And though Navalny’s political network was banned in Russia last year after being dubbed “extremist,” his foundation hasn’t ceased its efforts to expose corruption.
But with Navalny in prison and a new crackdown on independent media amid the faltering Ukraine war, keeping the Russian opposition movement alive is no easy task. Ashurkov, who lives in exile in London, said it’s “not safe for our staff to work in Russia.” The foundation relocated staff members to Lithuania in 2021, establishing a new office in Vilnius, after the “extremist” designation.
“The last year and a half have been difficult for us and for the whole democratic movement and independent journalists in Russia. This has been made many times more difficult since the war with the Ukraine started two months ago,” Ashurkov said, calling the situation “quite an ordeal.” Shortly after launching the war in Ukraine, Putin signed a law that could see people sentenced to up to 15 years for spreading “fake news” about the Russian military. Thousands of anti-war protesters in Russia have been arrested.
“Over the last two months, we’ve seen the last independent media outlets in Russia closed,” Ashurkov said. “Many people emigrated. Repression increased. Our good friend and ally Vladimir Kara-Murza has been put in detention for basically a speech that he has given in the US on the war. It is tough, but it was never really easy for Russian opposition ever.”
“We continue our work,” he added. The Anti-Corruption Foundation is primarily focused on three areas at present, he added, including expanding its social-media presence — particularly on YouTube — and attempting to break through Putin’s propaganda blitz (reaching Russians via virtual-private-network connections), anti-corruption investigations, and an increased focus on sanctions.
The Anti-Corruption Foundation this week released a list of more than 6,000 people “who are involved to different extent in various aspects of the war in Ukraine and who we believe should be considered for sanctioning,” Ashurkov said.
“These are the big things we are trying to do in these difficult conditions,” he added.
Navalny’s allies are constantly preparing for “when the situation in Russia changes and a political crisis emerges,” Ashurkov said. “And we’re confident that this war has actually expedited and brought forward to this stage. We are quite optimistic.”
‘The situation is quite dire for everybody’
Ashurkov said that Navalny continued to play a key role in the foundation’s work and that he remained in contact with Navalny through lawyers.
“Our team and his family communicate with Alexei through a lawyer that visits him on weekdays for about an hour,” Ashurkov said. “And during this time he scribbles his handwritten notes to his family and to us, and he reads whatever materials we sent him. Despite being in prison, he’s still very much an integral part of our team.”
But it’s not clear how long that line of communication will remain available, particularly given the recent extension of Navalny’s sentence.
“We don’t know whether he will be moved,” Ashurkov said. “It’s still up in the air.”
Navalny went on hunger strike in prison last year while demanding proper medical care, and there were grave concerns among his allies that he was on the verge of death. Ashurkov said Navalny’s health “seems fine” at the moment but that didn’t mean he’s not still in danger.
“Russian security services have shown us that they can do all kinds of bad things in all parts of the world,” Ashurkov said. “Navalny has already been poisoned.”
“He remains in Russian prison — not a particularly safe place,” he added. “So we are concerned, but for now he feels OK.”
He went on to describe Navalny’s story as being “one filled with miracles.”
“A miraculous recuperation after a murder attempt, an epic call to one of his assassins, a return to Russia despite all the threats,” he said. “He will defy whatever threats come his way in the future as well.”
But Ashurkov also underscored dangers extending well beyond Navalny, Russia, and Ukraine.
“I don’t think anybody on planet Earth has a secure future when there is a maniac with a nuclear bomb banging it around,” he said of Putin. “The situation is quite dire for everybody.”