When the political activist Alexei Navalny returned to Russia in January after five months in Germany, where he had been recovering from a gruesome nerve-agent attack likely perpetrated by the Kremlin, he was promptly arrested for violating parole and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Suddenly, Vladimir Putin seems more concerned about the threat of a free, popular opponent than the bad optics of an imprisoning one on obviously flimsy grounds.
Navalny’s arrest was met with protests by tens of thousands of Russians across the country’s eleven time zones. Thousands of protesters have been brutally beaten and detained by heavily armed police. Navalny’s team, seeking to avoid these ongoing clashes, moved their protests to social media on February 14. This was a natural choice for Navalny, a favorite among younger Russians. The forty-four-year-old rose to prominence through his YouTube channel and blog, taking advantage of Russia’s free internet to post videos like his recent exposé about a $1.34 billion mansion allegedly built for Putin using fraudulently obtained funds. That video quickly garnered more than 100 million views, and was referenced in signs and chants by protesters.
Though he brushes off Navalny in public statements, Putin is clearly worried that Navalny has become a rallying point for Russians dissatisfied with the president and his party. Reluctant to make Navalny a martyr, Putin had previously permitted him to avoid extended stays in prison, despite repeated arrests. Navalny’s current sentence relates to a money-laundering accusation from 2014. The European Court of Human Rights deemed the charge “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable,” but that hasn’t stopped Putin from using it as a pretext to bar Navalny from running for office.