PBS NewsHour


Why Navalny poses a special challenge to Putin's leadership

Across Russia Wednesday, protesters took to the streets in support of the jailed — and critically ill — opposition leader Alexei Navalny. They denounced the man they blame for his imprisonment, President Vladimir Putin. Amna Nawaz discusses the latest with Celeste Wallander, who was the senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council staff under the Obama administration.

AIRED: April 21, 2021 | 0:08:43

JUDY WOODRUFF: Across Russia today, protesters took to the streets in support of the jailed

and critically ill opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

As Amna Nawaz tells us, they also marched to denounce the man they blame for his imprisonment,

President Vladimir Putin.

AMNA NAWAZ: As night fell across Russia, protesters gathered in the thousands, answering the call

from jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

WOMAN (through translator): The situation with Navalny is completely unlawful. And it

is happening before everyone's eyes. Everyone thinks it could never happen to them. But

if it happens to one person, sooner or later, it could happen to everyone.

AMNA NAWAZ: Jailed in February, Navalny has been on hunger strike for three weeks over

lack of medical care. He was transferred to a prison hospital on Monday for so-called

vitamin therapy.

Police responded to his supporters in force, arresting peaceful protesters, including one

of Navalny's top allies, opposition figure Lyubov Sobol, who posted a video message from

a police van.

LYUBOV SOBOL, Top Associate of Alexei Navalny (through translator): I was literally detained

for the thought of showing up at the rally. But perfectly well what you should do. You

shouldn't be afraid. Navalny should be alive, safe and free.

AMNA NAWAZ: Earlier this year, Navalny livestreamed his arrest upon arrival from Berlin, where

he'd recuperated after an assassination attempt, one that was launched by the Russian government.

After his arrest, Navalny's anti-corruption organization released a video calling Putin

a corrupt monarch, pointing to a billion-dollar palace Putin owned on the Black Sea. Within

a day, the video had more than 20 million views, and has now been seen more than 115

million times.

ALEXEI NAVALNY, Russian Opposition Leader (through translator): He's a kind of czar,

he's an autocrat.

AMNA NAWAZ: Navalny has been active in Russian politics for a decade. In 2012, our Margaret

Warner interviewed Navalny when Navalny started his campaign against Putin, calling his party


In 2017, Nick Schifrin followed him again during his campaign for president.

ALEXEI NAVALNY (through translator): They tell us (EXPLETIVE DELETED) you. And we have

to say, oh, OK, we're very sorry. But, no, we have gathered here to say we're going to

ask these questions and we will obtain the answers.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA, Russian Opposition Politician: At the end of the day, there are millions

of people in Russia who fundamentally reject Putin, who want Russia to finally become a

normal European country. There are millions of people in Russia who share our vision.

AMNA NAWAZ: Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician. He himself has survived

two assassination attempts, he says, by Putin's government. He also says the crackdown in

recent years is a sign of Putin's weakness.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA: Why is he so afraid to allow the opposition ON the ballot? Why is

he so afraid to allow peaceful opposition demonstrations? This is not the behavior of

somebody who's popular and strong.

This is the behavior of somebody who is weak and very insecure.

AMNA NAWAZ: Today in Moscow, Putin said threats to Russian national security would not go


VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through translator): Initiators of any provocations

threatening our core national security interests are going to regret what they did in a way

they haven't regretted anything in a long time.

AMNA NAWAZ: His warning came amid a massive Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian

border. Russia-backed separatists have been fighting against Ukrainian forces since 2014.

But, this year, Ukraine says Russia has gathered more than 150,000 troops on its border.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said yesterday he wanted to meet Putin and end

the conflict. But he warned, Ukraine would not back down.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY, Ukrainian President (through translator): Will Ukraine stop trying to achieve

peace by diplomatic means? No, never. but will Ukraine defend itself in case of something?


AMNA NAWAZ: So, more than 1,500 people have been detained so far today across Russia.

Vladimir Kara-Murza told us he fully expected to be among them, though, at this hour, we

do not know his whereabouts.

We turn now to Celeste Wallander. During the Obama administration, she served as the special

assistant to the president and senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security

Council staff and as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.

Celeste Wallander, welcome to the "NewsHour."

Let me start by asking you about President Putin. He has jailed a popular political opponent.

He has rounded up protest across the country, amassed troops on the Ukrainian border. What

does all of this tell us right now about his hold on power?

CELESTE WALLANDER, Former Special Adviser to the President, National Security Council:

I think that the message from Moscow and from President Putin is that the leadership is

feeling quite insecure at home and abroad.

And President Putin in his speech today tried to draw a connection between those two things.

And what we're seeing inside of Russia protests, the activities and effectiveness of the Alexei

Navalny opposition organization, is a domestic internal movement.

But the Kremlin doesn't like to see it that way, because it doesn't like to entertain

the thought that Russia -- that Putin and the Putin leadership is genuinely facing opposition

of millions of Russians. And so it tries to draw the link to the outside world, to the

United States, in much the same way that President Putin blamed then Secretary of State Hillary

Clinton in 2012 for the protests when he returned as president.

AMNA NAWAZ: Well, let me ask you about that political opposition, because Putin has faced

critics and opponents before.

Is there something different about Navalny?

CELESTE WALLANDER: Navalny is a special challenge for the Russian leadership, the Putin leadership,

because Navalny is not of the sort of liberal elite of the standard Russian politicians

and oppositions.

Navalny has a track record is quite a nationalist, actually, and doesn't necessarily have a profile

that is strongly advocating liberalism, the package of policies we think of as liberalism.

And his main focus and what has made him really popular and well-known in Russia is the anti-corruption

campaigns, very effective investigations, very effective use of social media and media

and public reporting.

And so it's the combination of a leader who can't be branded, actually, as sort of a liberal

internationalist, but has that credibility as a homegrown, genuine politician with that

anti-corruption mission and an effective organization on the ground that clearly has gotten the

Kremlin's attention.

AMNA NAWAZ: Celeste, as you know, the Biden administration has tightened sanctions recently.

It's expelled 10 Russian diplomats.

Navalny supporters say the U.S. should be doing more, they should be targeting the oligarchs

who support and uphold Putin with sanctions. Do you believe the U.S. should take that step?

CELESTE WALLANDER: I think that focusing on individual businessmen is probably not going

to be effective in imposing costs on the Russian leadership.

At this time, most of those Russian businessmen, the ones who are close to Putin and the ones

who aren't so close to Putin, have already been sanctioned. You can only sanction people

so many times, and it's not going to be effective.

The better course of action is actually what the Biden White House has done in the last

couple of weeks, which is to create a new executive order that creates capabilities

not yet used, but clearly demonstrated to target Russian financial systems and, in particular,

sovereign debt. And that would really create significant costs for the Putin leadership.

And I think that that's where the Biden administration rightly has focused its signaling and its

capabilities, to be able to send a message to the Russian leadership that it needs to

desist, not just on the internal front, with its actions against Navalny and his supporters,

but also interference in our elections and in our political systems in the United States.

AMNA NAWAZ: Celeste Wallander, formerly of the National Security Council staff under

President Obama, thank you so much for joining us tonight.