articlesStrategic studies

The issue of Navalny and the course of Russian foreign relations


Despite the continuous rise of Russia on the international scene, and its recent endeavor to establish a regional security system that protects its geopolitical interests in the Middle East and Africa, Russia internally began to witness an explosion of stifled crises that would affect its relations with the West and Europe.

On 18 of January 2021, Russia have witnessed a wave of protests in some cities, which came after the Russian police has arrested the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, after he has arrived to “Sheremetyevo” Airport in Moscow from Germany, after the treatment trip that he has undergone as a result of food-poisoning incident in August 2020. On 2nd of February, 2021 The Russian judiciary sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months’ imprisonment; under the pretext of violating the parole in a previous suspended sentence on charges of laundering money in 2014.

Navalny’s detention accelerated the dynamics of some components of Russian society – part of middle class and intellectuals – who object the deterioration of living conditions and the misuse of power by the (oligarchy) class who are controlling the country’s wealth. The issue of Navalny and his team who screened a movie that caused a stir entitled “Putin’s Palace” one day after the detention of Navalny, would become a wake-up call from the popular discontent among some segments of society. especially between the ages of 20 and 31 years. Therefore, It would be meaningless to consider that the Navalny’s crisis is the only driver that led to provoke the Russian’s street, because there are many of protesters went out to streets for goals and motivations that are not related to the opposition’s agenda, and this is some of what we are trying to illustrate in this paper.

The Navalny’s detention provoked a widespread criticism from the Western countries, that opposed the behaviour of Russian authorities towards the human rights issues and their violation to the freedom of expression. The Western countries, through their official statements, called on the immediate and unconditional release to the Russian opposition leader.

These criticisms undoubtedly will cast a shadow over the course of foreign relations with Russia on several interlinked issues, whether in terms of energy and gas, or issues of security, armaments and international trade. Which makes it is necessary for the Kremlin leader to prepare for a new confrontation with Western countries, such confrontation becomes evident through Russia’s explicit rejection to these criticisms, as it considered “the international series of reactions to the detention of Navalny reflect an attempt to divert attention from the development crisis in the Western model.” [1]

This paper discusses the common links between the detention of the opposition figure Navalyn and his political orientation with the protest movement and its practical motivations, as well as its reflection on the course of Russian relations with the United States and European countries.

First: the course and interactions of the relation (Navalny-Putin):

Navalyn’s crisis and the incident of his detention highlighted Russia’s internal crises during the era of current President Vladimir Putin, where it seemed that the influence of the opposition figure lies in his ability to attract some segments of society to sympathize with him, this is temporary tactic and method for Navalyn, whose political history has other milestones in his dealings with the Russian police state.

Navalyn who aged 44 years, is considered one of the most prominent faces of the Russian opposition outside the State Duma. He is a lawyer, political activist, and blogger on social media, and he is opposing the aspiration of President Vladimir Putin and the “United Russia party”. Navalyn has been accused of several charges by the state, among these charges: planning to steal 16 million rubles from a state-owned timber company while serving as an advisor to the governor of the Kirov region in 2009. [2]

Navalyn emerged as a prominent figure for some segments of society in 2011, when he participated in a protest movement accusing the government of rigging the legislative elections. Not long after, at the same year, he established with his fellows an anti-corruption foundation dedicated to conduct investigations into the suspected corruption of businessmen and some workers in Russian politics. [3]. During this period, he brought closer to the traditional Russian opposition, who are go through a period of decline and dispersion until the present time. This traditional opposition mainly represented by the “Communist Party of the Russian Federation” and the “Liberal Democratic Party”, which do not have a real counterweight to the official state, and they have only a few seats in the State Duma, and their decisions are often in favor of President Putin’s aspirations.

With regard to the opposition activities, Navalyn did not ceased such activities, despite his full knowledge of the state of disruption within the opposition parties; In 2013, he participated in the elections for the mayor of Moscow, but he lost to Sergey Sobyanin, who is close to Putin, and a prominent figure in the United Russia Party. In 2016, he decided to run for the 2018 presidential elections, but he was excluded by the Central Elections Committee, which challenged his candidacy due to the embezzlement penalty imposed against him in 2014. [4]

Since then, Navalyn has been detained and released by the state many times on charges of organizing unauthorized demonstrations. As the legislative elections approached which are due to be held on September-2021, Navalny and his team prepared what they called (the smart voting system), which is a system that examine the file of the candidate who intends to run for election and has a great chance to win the election, and grant to this candidate unconditional support, regardless of his positions and political orientations. Navalny’s main objective behind this move, was to deprive the United Russia party of as much power possible, while also seeking to reduce Putin’s power within the corridors of the state. [5]

 Subsequently, Navalny lost consciousness after experiencing severe pain, which was later revealed that he has undergone a food-poisoning incident, which the Russian president, after Navalyn was transferred for treatment in Germany, has been directly accused of involvement. As result, a crisis occurred in Russian-German relations after trading of accusations over the origin of the poison, but the Kremlin denied all allegations against President Putin, who famously said: “If Russia wanted to kill him, he would be dead already.” [6]

Clearly, and based on the path and behaviour of the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, he becomes gradually a nuisance to the Russian authority, not because he is a strong rival to President Putin, but because he possessed some unconventional tools of influence on the Russian street, whose some of its factions call on radical changes and reforms in terms of policies and economy. Navalyn, due to the strict control of the Russian authorities on official media channels (both visual and broadcast), has to use social media and internet networks that enjoy more freedom, with the aim of attracting as many segments possible of society. However, this may not help in the medium and long term, as the Russian authorities enacting laws and imposed censorship procedures on these platforms as well.

Second: the common links between Navalyn and the movement of protests

Navalny’s return to Moscow constituted an additional factor and a driver to Russia’s internal crises, while the per capita income decreased by 3.5% from the previous year, and the unemployment rate reached its highest level since 2011. It is estimated that the Russian economy in 2020 will be severely affected by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, the Western sanctions imposed on Russia have led to the depreciation of the local currency, which in turn threatens to increase the inflation to higher levels after it reached 4.9% last year. The Official data showed that the number of people who are living below the poverty line in Russia reached 18.8 million; That is, an average of 12.8% of the total population of Russia. [7].

All the above circumstances caused a wave of discontent as a result of widespread corruption, the deterioration of the standard of living, and a lack of confidence in government institutions. Although the results of opinion polls still confirm that President Putin has gained high support up to now, such support has decreased in the last two years compared to the past ten years of his presidency. [8]

Accordingly, the Kremlin’s problem today at the internal level, is with an elite practicing the political work and part of the middle class and intellectuals. In the past, during the first ten years of Putin’s presidency, there was an understanding to ensure prosperity for segments of society, and the president has already achieved many gains to maintain this equation. However, with the deceleration of the economy after 2013, the Kremlin faced difficulty in maintaining social balance, so it turned towards achieving external gains with the aim of diverting the internal attention from them, which was explained by the war in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and the intervention in Syria. [9]. Putin therefore has made use of these external gains to reset the collective consciousness inside Russia and direct it towards enthusiasm for the survival of Russia in a great position on the international scene.

But with the new societal transformations in Russia in the recent millennium, along with the continued decline of the economy due to the continuing outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, it became clear that the previous regime’s methods were no longer useful, which prompted the President to make fundamental changes within the Russian regime in 2020, where he passed a draft resolution leading to the renewal of the State Council, and then the transition to the Grand Presidency, and allowing the president to achieve three things at the same time, that are as the following:

  • De-institutionalization of the governance structures and providing the president more flexibility and empowerment to appoint the officials.
  • Reversing the day-to-day governance while retaining control.
  • Structuring decision-making and directing it towards national priorities across the branches of power.

These goals, if achieved, paving the way for another strategic goal for the president, which is: to be alone at the top of the Russian regime, so he can obtain considerable authority in appointing the council members. This was recently evident in his appointment to new and approved figures in regional and federal positions with the aim of passing laws directly through the new State Duma. The council therefore would adopt further de-institutionalization of power in Russia, and grant Putin the opportunity to retain his influence in Russian politics even if he moved away from the position of head of state. [10]

These political changes – along with the accumulation of the aforementioned internal crises – contributed to formulation of a state of extreme rage strengthened by Navalny’s return to Moscow. despite Navalyn’s full knowledge that the Russian authorities would arrest him upon his return according to a previous warrant, but he insisted on returning to employ the state of extreme rage in line with his political aspirations, as evidenced by his contribution in mobilizing the Russian street by revealing what he claimed “Putin’s palace,” as he claimed that the palace is owned by the president personally.

If it had not been for this tactic movement, it would not have protests, or at least are delayed until the legislative elections begin in September 2021. Nevertheless, the wave of protests which officially stopped [11], showed – according to sources – that a large number of protesters do not agree with the Navalyn’s political programme, but rather they participated in the protests because of discontent with the state’s policies; especially after the recent laws and procedures that Putin passed.

According to a survey conducted by “Levada” Center in 2020 [12] over Navalyn’s personality and the movement of the protests in the country; that the groups of people who protested five years ago still form the core of the protest process, and they wish to see modernization and reform in their country.

The survey also showed that 50% of Russians were rejecting Navalyn, while 20% of Russians were supporting him. Based on these results it appears that the young age group in Russia, is that participated in unauthorized protests on January 23, noting that these protests were not different from their previous ones, which often stop after days or several weeks.

Based on all these urgent changes at the internal level, some concerns have surfaced for the Kremlin about the opposition, but it is not limited to the personality of the opposition leader Navalny. Rather, the Kremlin’s fear lies in the loss of control over society in the long term, and the repetition of events similar to the “Orange Revolution” that occurred in Ukraine in 2004, or the events that occurred in Georgia from 2003 to 2008, these events and reasons have prompted the authorities to suppress protests and carry out thousands of arrests, and crackdown on protesters by enacting new laws, the most important of which was the imposition of financial fines, and banning of opposition figures from running for the next elections. [13].

The procedures of the Russian state in dealing with the internal developments have coincided with its external behaviour in response and confrontation with some Western and European opponents and partners, as these countries are following the news of the internal dilemma of the Russian state, and showed their sympathy with Navalny and the protest movement; with the aim of putting pressure on Putin in the common files and the overlapping interests as well.

The Russian president considered what is happening in his country, is an internal matter, so it is expected that Russia will witness a crisis of new relations with the outside from two sides: the first one relates to the nature of interactions between Russia and America in the first crisis between them during the era of the new US President Joe Biden, and the second relates to interactions with Europe.

Third: The interactions of the Navalny crisis with the USA during Biden era:

The Western reaction to the incident of Navalny’s detention came quickly through the US official positions, as US National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan calling on Moscow for the immediate release of the detained dissent, Adding that “the Kremlin’s assault on the Russian opposition is not only a violation to the human rights. But also a challenge to the Russian people. ”[14]

In the last January, the current US President, Joe Biden, made his first phone call with his Russian counterpart, telling him that his administration would act firmly to defend its national interests. According to a White House statement, the phone call addressed several issues; the most important of which are: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the Ukraine crisis and Belarus crisis, the issue of Russia’s interference in the US elections, the Afghanistan file, and the incident of food-poisoning the opposition leader Navalyn and his detention. On the other hand, the Kremlin revealed – with a declared position – the content of the phone call, describing it as positive, and stressed the need to normalize joint relations that would achieve the interests of the two countries. [15]

Despite Russia’s apparent position of openness to the Biden administration, which began with the acceptance of the two parties to the extension to the START treaty without new conditions. However, – on the practical level – this is not considered a positive indicator to the development of the relations between both countries. Because Putin is well aware that Biden is engineering a comprehensive strategy that has more than one path in his foreign policy.

it is now recognized that the US President is adopting an anti-Moscow approach to some extent, especially since before his arrival to the White House administration. On 20 December, he discussed with his team the options to punish Russia, because of his accusation to it regarding to its involvement in acts of piracy against US government agencies and entities. [16] Nevertheless, it is not possible to construct and assert that Biden will tend to prefer the option of hostility with Russia, because of his clear external approach – at least at the present – is adopting dual strategy that includes reactions to the Kremlin’s suppression of the dissent, and cooperating with it in other issues on a case-by-case basis.

Based on this strategy, the second part of which will be the most important for Biden. According to said phone call made between Putin and Biden on 26th of January, the two presidents agreed to discuss what they called “strategic stability” on a range of issues (arms control, the emerging security issues, including Iran’s nuclear file). [17]. Accordingly, Biden will be in need for Russia and to bring about an understanding with it in order to lay the first pillars of his foreign gains in the region. But without Russia that is on the rise on the international scene, it would be difficult to reach these goals, even if he re-plans alliances with America’s allies in the region, such as Europe and the Arab Gulf states.

Moreover, the United States of America’s willingness to confront China’s influence in the region will not be in isolation from Russia, which has overlapping and common interests and relations with China in more than one direction. At the same time, the Russian President has recently expressed his initial acceptance to form a coalition with China, saying: “This is theoretically possible” [18]; Therefore, any severe American pressure on Russia will have the consequences of pushing it further towards Beijing. Because the two countries share a state of common hostility against the United States.

With regard to the first part of Biden’s aforementioned strategy (Reactions to the Repression of Opponents) it may turn towards a unilateral tactic with a policy of imposing sanctions on Russian officials who are found to be involved in violating the human rights, and repressing the opponents, including those who assaulted the Russian opposition leader Navalny. [19]

At this point, the Russian president will have more than one option to respond to or deal with the Biden’s administration, which will be as the following:

  •  Russia will cooperate with China to develop their strategy to deal with the United States and respond to it in response to any extreme measures that would negatively affect the interests of either country. It is likely that Biden will not take such a measure, and he may be satisfied with a unilateral option related to a policy of lenient sanctions; because his strategic goal would be to refrain Russia from its harmful behaviour in his country, not to weaken it.
  • Putin may open the door to the talks with the West and take advantage of Biden’s desire to solve some common security issues, with the aim of reducing the internal support and international sympathy with Navalny, and if this is realized, Putin will renew the legitimacy of his political regime and represent himself to the West once again as the only source of power in the country, and this is a fundamental and strategic goal of the ruler of Russia.

Naturally, whatever the form of the American-Russian interaction and tension, the strategy of mutual pressure between America and Russia will be the title of the next stage. It should be noted that Biden will employ the Navalny issue and the Russian opposition issue as leverage on Moscow, to make the country in internal concern with the aim of reducing and containing its external behaviour, especially in the regions that the US want to regain its geopolitical weight such as Sudan, all of Africa and the Red Sea.

The consequences of Navalny’s crisis on Russian-European relations:

The issue of poisoning and detention of the opposition leader Navalyn, constituted a new relations crisis between Russia and the European countries, especially with France and Germany, which are at the current time – after Britain’s exit from the European Union – became the two main powers in the Union; Therefore, the French and German reactions were the most notable among the member states in dealing with the Russian behaviour towards the human rights issues and the Russian opponents. As the European Council has protested the detention of Navalyn, and called on Russian authorities to release him, stressing that in case the Russian government did not respond, the Council will take series of escalatory actions against Moscow, including reconsidering the “Nord Stream 2” gas pipeline project, [21] and the imposition of economic sanctions.

In order to provide some kind of credibility to the behaviour of the Union. On 11th of February, 2021, the European countries reached an consensus regarding imposing new sanctions against Russia. The decision came in connection with Europe’s claim that the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell was insulted by the Russian authorities during his visit to Moscow on 9th of February, 2021, when he attempted to solve the opposition leader crisis, which met with strict Russian refusal to intervene in his case. [22].

Latvia and Estonia – the Baltic states – also support the imposition of more European sanctions on Russian officials. Italy has also expressed its willingness to support more travel bans and freeze the assets of some individuals in Russia.

It should be noted that the issue of imposing sanctions on Russia by the European Union is not new, as the European Union had previously imposed economic sanctions on the Russian energy, financial and arms sectors, as a result of Russia’s annexation to Crimea in 2014, the sanctions were also imposed on Russian officials close to President Putin in response to the poisoning of the opposition leader Navalny, in addition, other sanctions that were imposed on the official responsible for destroying chemical weapons stockpiles that dating back to the Soviet era. [23]

Based on the rigid positions of the two sides, which increased when the two sides exchanged the expulsion of political diplomats, [24] it is likely that relations will be more tense in the next phase, and the European Union’s initiative to modernize participatory relations with Russia, which launched in 2010 to restore the trust that was cracked after the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, may be terminated or postponed.

However, the question that arises is: how the critical relationships between the two sides be affected after the renewed dispute in the Navalny crisis?

During the last period of the past decade, the European foreign policy was surrounded by uncertainty and witnessed a sharp division among the member states, especially after the decline of the traditional parties’ role at the expense of the rise of the right and populist currents. Alongside with the Britain’s exit from the Union, and the forthcoming completion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure, and the growing of internal crises in France, which considered among the most important indicators of the decline of the Union standing on the international scene.

Accordingly, the European capitals began to look for ways to maintain – at least – a minimum of positive relations with Russia, as several initiatives with joint efforts with the United States has emerged in this regard. Likewise in March 2016, when the European Union put forward its so-called Five Principles for dealing with Russia, and in the summer of 2019 Emmanuel Macron launched major efforts to restore relations with Russia. [26]

However, all these efforts have not been fully accepted by Russia, which has a different approach in dealing with the countries of European Union, as it does not reject resetting the diplomatic relations in principle, but it at the same time refuses to set its foreign relations to the way that the European Union desires. In other words, Putin rejects the unilateral logic concerned only with the interests of Europe, without taking into account Russia’s current international situation.

The explanation of this is due to the fact that Moscow believes that it made many unilateral concessions in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century. It therefore believe that the West and Europe must make concession now. That is because Russia is no longer interested in preserving the current strategic situation, but rather continues to change the old equations in more than one place, as happened recently in the Nagorno Karabakh crisis. [27]

With the renewal of the European-Russian disagreement over the Navalny issue, Germany and the rest of the Union countries will be in a critical position in dealing with Russia, as the use of the strategy of pressure on Russia in matters that Putin considers them as internal affair in line with an European effort to cooperate with it on other issues, which is a strategy that Putin will not accept. Rather, it is expected that he will continue to toughen his stances towards Ukraine and Belarus.

Moreover, if Putin decided to develop his economic interests in the countries that he has involved in such as (Libya – Syria – Nagorno Karabakh), this would harm the interests of Paris and Berlin as well. Therefore, Putin’s efforts are likely to face less resistance with Europe because of their need for him in many common issues and interests, including the commercial and security matters that Putin works to put them under his control from the gates of Asia and Africa. From this point, Europe will not impose strict sanctions on Russia. Rather, the messages directed to it at the current time are to urge Russia to adjust its internal behavior in line with the nature of its external role and its common interests with the countries of the Union.


it is not the first time that Russia witnesses an internal crises. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been witnessing intermittent internal crises, and the popular protests were often held to express upset at the deterioration of the living situation, but at the present time, the economic and political grievances seem to converged simultaneously, after President Putin resorted to adopting decisions and enacting new laws that ultimately led to the imposition of his tight grip on power through the new State Duma.

As for the opposition, it can be stated that: Navalyn in an urgent Phenomenon in the Russian scene, and has recently become a source of inconvenience to the authorities after obtaining temporary tools of influence in moving the Russian street, whom a large number – according to polls – protested for demands that contradict the agenda of the opposition, which will harm the opposition in the medium and long term to succeed in uniting itself; because it does not have a clear political programme.

Undoubtedly, the internal situation in Russia has caused tension in Russia’s relations with the countries of the West in general, but since the arrival of Putin to the power in the year of 2000, he was able to modernize and develop his external tools and plans, so that he deals with them from the perspective of the competitor rather that the weak side.

Accordingly, and based on the recent changes in the region, especially with regard to American policy and the current division in the European Union, it is likely that Russia will deal with them from the side of interests with a pragmatic logic, and in this direction some concessions may be made in exchange for the removal of any international support for the opponent Navalny up to the full exclusion of him from the entire Russian equation. As the issue of keeping Navalyn out of the spotlight and putting him behind bars may continue after the next legislative elections, and this is what Putin is focusing on at the present time, and he will continue to maneuver on the external level until this goal is achieved.

“The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Barq for Policies and Consultations.”

All rights reserved to Barq for Policies and Consultations © 2021


TRIB. Navalny’s arrest adds to tension between Russia and the West. FEBRUARY 7. 2021


Who is the opposition leader Navalyn, Middle East, 30 January, 2018


Washington Post. What to know about Navalny’s protest movement in Russia — and why it unnerves Putin. Jan. 29, 2021.


Alex Bustos, Moscow-based journalist, Alexei Navalny: The story of the Russian opposition against Kremlin corruption, Noon Post, 1-27-2021.


BLOOMBERG. Putin, Poison and the Importance of Alexey Navalny.GANUARY.2021.


Putin: If Russia wanted to poison Navalny, “he would have been dead” now, Aero News, 12-17-2020.


REUTERS. Not just Navalny: economic pain also behind Russian protests. FEBRUARY 1, 2021.


CAHTHAMHOUSE. Russia Divided. FEBRUARY.2021. 


UVITED STATES. From Navalny to the Economy, Russia Protests Reveal Mass Dissatisfaction. January 27, 2021.


CAHTHAMHOUSE. Rebooting the State Council Increases Putin’s Power. 28 OCTOBER 2020.


EUOBSERVER. Navalny’s team say no more protests until spring. FEB, 07:23.


CARENEGIE. Russian Protest in the Age of Online Transparency. 26.01.2021.


MEOUZA. Making life difficult Russian lawmakers rush to tighten legislation ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections


REUTERS. Russia detains Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, faces clash with Western nations.

JANUARY 17, 2021


VEWS. Biden holds first phone call with Russia’s Putin. Jan. 26, 2021.


Putin’s nightmare: Can Alexei Navalny reignite tensions between Russia and the West, Noon Post, 1-18-2021.


NIKKEI ASIA. New START extension only benefits Russia and China. February 2, 2021.


Putin, is he considering to ally with China, Al-Jazeera, 1-1-2021?


ATLANTICCOUNCIL. Navalny’s arrest is Biden’s first big test. Here’s how he can pass it. January 17, 2021.


FOREIGN AFFAIRS. To Silence Navalny, Putin Will Try to Enlist the West. Washington Should Beware Falling Into the Kremlin’s Trap. January 27, 2021.


West challenges “Russian oppression” after Alexei Navalny’s conviction, Monte Carlo International, 2-4-2021.


After insulting Borrell … the EU agrees to impose sanctions on Russia, Al Yom, February 11th, 2021.


REUTERS. EU to hold off on new Russia sanctions if Navalny released. JANUARY 25, 2021.


EUOBSERVER. Merkel: EU expulsions show Russia ‘far from rule of law. FEB, 20:41.


EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN. How Russia and the West try to weaken each other. 22 January 2021.


EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN. Why attempts to reset relations with Russia fail. 3 February 2021.


A paper prepared by the researcher, The Positions of the key players States in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Barq for Policies and Consultations, 10-29-2020.

Related Articles

Back to top button