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Why Ukraine is wary of the Russian opposition

Last year’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia has revived a long-standing debate about the place of Russian opposition in the context of Russian aggression in the post-Soviet space. Russian opposition activists and some observers have argued that Russian expansionism can only be stopped through regime change and democratization, ostensibly led by the Russian opposition.

Ukrainians, and many of their supporters from post-Soviet countries who have experienced Russian imperialism, usually disagree. They do not see the Russian opposition – and more specifically its most prominent leader today, Alexey Navalny – as future guarantors of peace.

To explain why, let me first share an exchange I had in 2015 with members of Navalny’s movement, or “Navalnists” as they are called in Russian.

It happened during a private event at a British think tank where a Ukrainian colleague of mine spoke about the transformation of cultural values ​​in Ukraine after the 2014 revolution and the beginning of Russian aggression. Among those present were two Russians, who are touring Britain as representatives of Navalny’s movement. After the call ended, my colleague and I had a chance to have a short conversation with them.

Unsurprisingly, we questioned them about comments Navalny made about Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014. In an October 2014 interview with the Echo of Moscow radio station, Navalny admitted that the peninsula had been seized by “ outrageous violations of all international norms”, yet claimed it would “remain part of Russia” and “never become part of Ukraine in the foreseeable future”.

His statement was not just an assessment of developments around Crimea. When asked if he would return Crimea to Ukraine if he became president of Russia, Navalny wrapped his ‘no’ in a strange rhetorical question: ‘What? Is Crimea a sandwich or something you can take and give back?” It was clear that his political stance on Crimea was that it should “remain part of Russia”.

It is important to point out that our conversation with the two Navalnists took place less than half a year after the assassination of prominent Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov near the Kremlin. The assassination of Nemtsov, who vocally opposed Russian aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, allowed Navalny to emerge as the main Russian opposition leader still trying to engage in politics in Russia.

The other major opponent of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, lived in exile in London and was not directly involved in Russian politics.

Therefore, at the time, it was not unreasonable to imagine that a regime change in Russia, if it did happen, would be led by Navalny. So we wanted to know what Ukraine can expect from “the beautiful Russia of the future”, as Navalny likes to call post-Putin Russia.

The Navalnists replied that under a democratically elected government, Moscow would keep Crimea despite the annexation being illegal. That is because their policies should reflect the will of the Russian people and the vast majority of Russians wanted Crimea to be within Russian borders.

But there was more to it. We argued that the West would never recognize the annexation of Crimea and that restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity would not only improve relations between Russia and the West, but also help restore relations between Russia and Ukraine. The Navalnists’ response was that “the beautiful Russia of the future” would find ways to ease relations with the West without righting the wrongs done to Ukraine.

In other words, Ukraine could be a direct victim of Putin’s regime, and yet – even with him gone – it would remain a victim of Russian colonialism, because the latter was not only popular among regime supporters, but also among ‘Russian democrats’. As Volodymyr Vynnychenko, one of the central figures of the Ukrainian national liberation movement in 1917-1919, aptly observed a century ago: “Russian democracy ends where the Ukrainian question begins”.

When Navalny became the face of the Russian opposition to Putin – a face increasingly recognized as such not only in Russia but also in the West – Ukrainians became wary. At that time, the West supported democratization and modernization in Ukraine and provided some support to the country’s struggle against Russian aggression. “But what would become of that if Navalny came to power in Russia?” we wondered.

Since Navalny certainly enjoyed, at the very least, moral support from Western leaders, his assumption of power in Russia could potentially lead to a reset in Western Russian relations, leaving Ukraine out in the cold. Many feared that Ukraine wouldn’t matter to Western leaders if they had someone nicer than Putin to talk to.

And there was already a precedent. In August 2008, Russia – then led by Dmitry Medvedev – invaded Georgia and occupied the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The West reached a peace deal that was not only very unfavorable to Georgia, but was also not observed by Russia.

And yet, half a year later, the Obama administration offered Medvedev — who at the time seemed more progressive than Putin — a “reset” in an effort to improve US-Russia relations. This move, which was generally applauded by Western European governments, essentially meant “wiping the slate clean” and thus implied that Russia’s occupation of Georgian regions would not be contested.

Navalny, as Ukrainians and liberal Russians well remember, vehemently supported the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, even using derogatory, inhumane terms to refer to the Georgian people. Several years later, he apologized for the terms he used, but never for his support of Russia’s war against Georgia.

Navalny was nominally against Russian aggression in Ukraine, but his “anti-war” stance was supported by economic, rather than moral, considerations: “Russia cannot afford to go to war”. That position was not expected to engender empathy for the Ukrainian people – something which was also reflected in his use of ethnic slurs against them.

He saw the Russian people as victims of injustice under the Putin regime, not the Ukrainians. In his view, no wrong had been committed against Ukraine worth rectifying.

In the following years, as Russian aggression in Ukraine turned into a frozen conflict, Navalny and his team focused on exposing the corruption of Putin’s regime through a series of high-profile investigations. In the run-up to the 2018 presidential election, these sensational revelations began to irritate the Kremlin in the most serious way.

Navalny and his followers were frequently physically assaulted and briefly arrested. The Kremlin had clearly come to believe that his political movement was a threat to the regime and decided to destroy it.

It seemed logical for the Ukrainians to support Navalny’s movement, at least tactically, if not strategically, as it could destabilize Putin’s regime and undermine his war machine. But the problems of Navalny and his followers did not resonate with the Ukrainians, as his past remarks, as well as the Navalnists’ arrogance and contempt, offered little hope that “the beautiful Russia of the future” would have any respect for sovereignty and the territorial character of Ukraine. integrity.

Even after Russian authorities poisoned Navalny with a nerve agent and later imprisoned him on politically motivated charges, few Ukrainians softened their position.

The large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, followed by the massive crackdown on the remnants of Russia’s anti-Putin opposition, has dramatically changed the views of Ukraine held by many Russian critics of the Putin regime, including the team of Navalny.

As the majority of Navalnists were forced to take refuge in the West, where many influential figures adopted a “Ukraine First” policy in communicating with self-proclaimed “Russian Democrats”, the Navalnists could no longer afford to publicly express their contempt. for Ukraine because they risked losing all Western sympathy for their movement.

In late February 2023, Navalny’s team published a 15-point manifesto that sought to dispel much of the controversy surrounding their views on Ukraine. Importantly, the manifesto recognized Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, implying that Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea and all other currently occupied Ukrainian territories should be restored.

The document also urged the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine, offering reparations, investigating war crimes in cooperation with international institutions, and ultimately allowing Ukraine to live and develop as Ukrainians want.

However, for many Ukrainians, this change of heart is well overdue. In present-day Ukraine, very few believe that Russian aggression can be stopped by anti-Putin activism, even if it is unequivocally pro-Ukrainian.

In this war, Ukrainians rely on their own fighting spirit and Western support. What happens to Russia after the long-awaited military defeat in Ukraine is not of great importance. This may seem short-sighted, but the war is understandably a more pressing issue.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.