On June 19th, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged Russians to join a new anti-war campaign against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Since his arrest in January 2021 upon returning to Moscow following his recuperation in Germany from nerve agent poisoning, which he blamed on the Kremlin, Navalny has been serving a nine-year sentence for fraud and contempt of court. Now, he’s on trial for charges of “extremism,” which could add several decades to his sentence. Along with this, The Guardian says, Navalny is facing charges of financing extremist activity, publicly inciting extremist activities, and “rehabilitating the Nazi ideology.” Overriding Navalny’s own demand to keep his trial open, a Moscow city court spokesman announced to the press that the trial would be held in private. This reflects the dire state of the repression political dissidents and activists face within Russia.
“The investigators, the prosecutors and the authorities in general don’t want the public to know about the trial,” Navalny said.
Despite the consequences heaped on him by the state, Navalny has maintained his vocal criticism of Moscow. In addition to years of mobilizing anti-war and anti-Kremlin protests, beginning throughout the 2010s, Navalny established the Foundation for Fighting Corruption to expose top Russian politicians and even wrote an essay in the Washington Post in September 2022, calling for the establishment of a parliamentary republic in Russia in order to end “self-reproducing Russian authoritarianism of the imperial kind.” Following his imprisonment, Navalny has continued to post on social media through his lawyers and allies; it was this camp which announced the new anti-war campaign, a continuation of Navalny’s anti-Kremlin political work, to reporters outside his trial. Aiming to use targeted messaging to “fundamentally” turn Russian public opinion against Putin and the war, the campaign contests misinformation by “combat[ing] Putin’s lies and the Kremlin’s hypocrisy.”
Navalny’s case has repeatedly drawn international outcry. The German government criticized Navalny’s trial and called for immediate release, telling reporters, “Navalny’s imprisonment is based on a politically motivated verdict, as the European Court of Human Rights concluded back in 2017.” However, given Russia’s strained relations with the West and how rare it is for opposition figures to be acquitted in Russia, there appear to be few avenues to secure Navalny’s release.
In January 2023, a report on Russia from Human Rights Watch assessed what it called a grim state of affairs. “The Kremlin clearly aims to silence any public opposition to the war, any criticism of the government, or any expression of social non-conformism,” said Rachel Debner, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The report condemned new legislation following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which has labeled individuals and groups as “foreign agents” and introduced long prison sentences for calling the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine a “war,” criticizing the invasion, or reporting on Ukrainian civilian casualties or Russian war crimes. Activists have been arrested for involvement with organizations blacklisted as “undesirable.” Authorities have used “counter-terrorism” and counter-extremism laws to persecute political opposition and activists, including figures such as Lilia Chanysheva, a leading associate of Navalny who was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison for “creating an extremist organization” in June. These systematic crackdowns against opposition voices, which have only worsened following the invasion of Ukraine, have left most of the country’s dissenting voices imprisoned or abroad.
In the wake of this repression, the Putin regime has flooded Russia and occupied territories in Ukraine with misinformation campaigns whilst continuing its war crimes in Ukraine. According to TIME, the Kremlin’s genocidal, imperialist propaganda frames Ukraine as a historical mistake governed by neo-Nazis – a framing also seen in Navalny’s trial. “It shocks me,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with TIME. “The force of this information, the information sickness.”
The force and power of Putin’s disinformation only affirms the necessity of Navalny’s campaign.