Hidden from much of the world behind a veil of Kremlin censorship, Russian critics of President Vladimir Putin are waging a vigorous campaign of resistance to the war in Ukraine, according to a prominent opposition spokesman.
“The war in Ukraine is being fought on three different fronts,” said Leonid Volkov, a top aide to jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Volkov was in Washington in May to pick up the International Republican Institute’s 2022 Freedom Award on Navalny’s behalf.
Identifying those three fronts as military, informational and economic, he acknowledged that Russian civil society can’t do much to help Ukraine on the military front.
But, he said, Navalny’s supporters are actively fighting to resist Putin on the information front “where we fight to change the attitude of the Russian society,” and they are contributing to the West’s economic sanctions by identifying Putin supporters and their assets.
Volkov told the IRI audience that Navalny and his team have put together a list of what he described as “6,000 of Putin’s warmongers and war enablers – his oligarchs, corrupt government officials, his friends and family.”
“We suggest sanctioning all of them, make Putin toxic, isolated,” Volkov said. “I’m glad to say that during my meetings here, this idea has found a lot of support.”
On the information front, Volkov said, Navalny is leading an effort to counter a Russian propaganda campaign that depicts the war as a “special military operation” and outlaws truthful reporting, even while serving a dubious jail term that was extended by nine years in March.
Navalny “maintains contact with the outside world through his attorneys” and by maintaining an active presence on social media platforms, Volkov said. As a result, the Anti-Corruption Foundation that he established in 2011 has been able to survive enormous repression and is now stronger than it ever was, according to Volkov.
“Just to give you an example, in April this year, we had over 20 million unique views of our program on YouTube where we investigate Putin’s corruption, countering Putin’s propaganda and disinformation and tell our Russian compatriots truth about Putin’s atrocious war against Ukraine,” Volkov said. “Twenty million, this is twice the number of followers we had on social media before the war started.”
Russian-language TV shows produced by Navalny’s foundation have also had tens — and in some instances hundreds — of millions of views on the foundation's YouTube channel. The foundation is now conducting a GoFundMe campaign in hopes of expanding its reach.
Navalny has also been able to make his case against the war in an article penned for Time magazine and published late last month. In it, he portrayed the war against Ukraine as an extension of oppression within Russia itself.
“If someone destroys the independent media, organizes political assassinations, and sticks to his imperial delusions, then he is a madman capable of causing a bloodbath in the center of Europe in the 21st century,” Navalny wrote.
“A path that begins with ‘just a little election rigging’ always ends with a dictatorship. And dictatorship always leads to war. It’s a lesson we shouldn’t have forgotten.”
In the same essay, Navalny castigated world leaders, who he said, “have hypocritically talked for years about a ‘pragmatic approach’ and the benefits of international trade” with Russia. In so doing, he wrote, “they enabled themselves to benefit from Russian oil and gas while Putin’s grip on power grew stronger.”
The economic gains of those policies have been dwarfed by the costs of defending Ukraine against Russia’s aggression, Navalny continued. “Between sanctions and military and economic aid, this war will cost hundreds of times more than those lucrative oil and gas contracts, the signing of which used to be celebrated with champagne.”
Navalny’s stand has won him praise in the West, where he was honored this week by the European People’s Party, the largest voting bloc within the 27-member European Union.
“His fight for freedom of speech and freedom in Russia is [also] our fight,” the party declared at its annual conference in Rotterdam, where banners declared “We Stand with Freedom” and “We Stand with Ukraine.”
At the IRI event in Washington, Congressman Mike McCaul, the most senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, compared Navalny to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose staunch resistance to Russia has won him worldwide admiration.
By the same token, “the belligerent actions of Putin’s kleptocratic regime are a threat to freedom and democracy everywhere,” including Russia itself, IRI President Dan Twining told VOA.
To “live and let live” is how he sees the future state of Russia both on Russian soil and in its relations with Ukraine and other neighbors, Navalny said, while delivering his “final words” after a Russian court rejected his appeal of a nine-year sentence last week.
Navalny, a 45-year-old father of a 21-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, looked to his own future while addressing the court.
“Certainly, I don’t want to sit in this cage instead of doing some useful things and watching my children grow up. But man is not given life to be afraid of the crazy old man in a bunker and this system he has built.”