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Why Would Ukrainian Patriots Feud with Russian Dissidents?

You’d think the two anti-Putin groups would get along—but their disagreements point to important questions about the war and the future of Russia.
March 20, 2023
Why Would Ukrainian Patriots Feud with Russian Dissidents?
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, his wife Yulia, opposition politician Lyubov Sobol and other demonstrators march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow on February 29, 2020. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

The Oscar awarded last week to Navalny—a documentary about Russian political prisoner Alexei Navalny’s struggle against Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian state—is a gesture of support for dissidents in Russia and an indictment of the Putin regime. Yet the award created some strong and at times acrimonious dissension between two groups that share a common hatred of that regime: Ukrainian patriots and Russian liberals. The latter were jubilant; for many of the former, the Navalny Oscar was yet another example of the West’s stubborn habit of looking for “good Russians” to celebrate. A tart Twitter comment from Ukrainian comedian Anton Tymoshenko, who suggested that Navalny was merely “play[ing] the role of the opposition in Russia,” was one of the milder examples of the backlash.

Others were harsher. One Twitter user referred to Navalny and his wife Yulia—whom the account criticized for not mentioning the war in Ukraine in her very short acceptance remarks devoted almost entirely to her imprisoned husband—as “self centered, imperialistic, spineless, cynical sadists”; another tweet in the same thread showed Navalny’s wife and two teenage children morphing into clones of Putin. To some extent, such reactions are an understandable expression of anger and pain from a war-battered nation, exacerbated by the fact that the Motion Pictures Academy reportedly declined Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request to address the awards ceremony by video feed. Also adding to the tensions are Navalny’s past dabblings in nationalism, and the complicated views on the Crimea issue that he expressed in a 2014 interview—even though, in a blog post shared by his team last month, the anti-corruption crusader strongly condemned not only the war but Russian imperialism in general and affirmed that Russia must recognize Ukraine’s 1991 borders, which include Crimea.

But this controversy also touches on questions far bigger than Navalny himself: Should Russia be seen solely as the aggressor country in its war with Ukraine, or should it be considered, in some sense, a fellow victim of the Putin regime? Should people who root for democracy in Ukraine also share Yulia Navalnaya’s dream, expressed in her Oscars mini-speech, of the day when not only Alexei Navalny but Russia itself “will be free”—or is that dream a pointless fantasy, one that serves to promote comforting illusions about the nature of the Russian state? Is the war in Ukraine “Putin’s war” or Russia’s war, as well, and to what extent are ordinary Russians responsible for it regardless of their own military service (or lack thereof)? Should our goal be a postwar, post-Putin Russia that is on a path to liberal democracy, or simply a defanged Russia that is too weak to threaten its neighbors? Are Russian liberals, dissidents, and opposition activists brave fighters for freedom and for humanity’s future, or useful idiots unwittingly (or cynically, as Tymoshenko alleges) running cover for empire?

This is not the first time debate around these issues has flared up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began over a year ago. Last October, the bone of contention was the Nobel Peace Prize given jointly to human rights activists from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. (The Russian winner, the veteran human rights organization Memorial, had been recently banned in Russia after being designated a “foreign agent” for receiving too much funding from abroad and after allegedly violating the confusing rules governing the work of organizations so labeled.) Two months later, it was a segment on the exiled Russian television channel Dozhd (TV Rain) in which the host suggested that the station could help Russian conscripts by publicizing their problems—which Dozhd’s critics often interpreted as meaning that the station was raising funds to assist the conscripts, even after its management gave assurances that it had done no such thing.

Interestingly, in the controversy over Navalny, even some staunchly pro-Ukraine expatriate Russian commentators who had harshly criticized Dozhd, such as former television host Yevgeny Kiselyov and former Russian Journalists’ Union president Igor Yakovenko, took Navalny’s side against his critics. (This may reflect the fact that Navalny, poisoned with nerve agents by Kremlin operatives in 2020 and now imprisoned and subjected to sadistic abuse that includes repeated solitary confinement and denial of family visits, had become the ultimate unifying figure for Russian dissidents.) The documentary, Yakovenko said, “opens the eyes of so many people to the fact that the Putin regime, before it attacked Ukraine and committed these crimes that we now see every day—this regime occupied Russia first.” What’s more, he added, “this film is about the fact that there are people in Russia who resisted the occupation at the cost of their own lives . . . to say that these are pseudo-heroes—well, I leave that on the conscience of those who say it.”

As Yakovenko acknowledged, this isn’t just about Navalny; it’s also about Russia’s future—and, by extension, the world’s:

I think this is important because the problem of Russia is not going anywhere. The idea that you can build a mile-high fence and dig a moat filled with crocodiles and it’s all good, and these orcs . . . who live in Russia, they’ll stay there and everything will be fine and the rest of the world can breathe a sigh of relief—this is a mistake. Russia isn’t going to fall into a deep hole, it’s not going anywhere. . . . Because if the regime doesn’t change . . . Russia will pose a threat to humanity even after Ukraine wins this war, which of course it will.

One may debate whether Yakovenko is too sanguine about Ukraine’s victory and the advent of a post-Putin Russia in the near future. But how Russia should be treated after the war ends—in the best-case scenario, with Russian troops pushed back until they leave all of Ukraine’s territory as defined by its 1991 borders, a humiliating defeat for Putin no matter how he might try to spin it—is not an idle question.

A Maidan-like scenario in which the Putin regime is ousted as a result of popular unrest is extremely far-fetched, especially since Ukraine’s 2014 revolution was legitimized and empowered by a strong parliamentary opposition, something today’s Russia entirely lacks. However, an elite coup that removes Putin and replaces him with an ostensibly reformist successor in the hope of achieving a new détente or “reset” with the West is entirely possible. There isn’t much chance that such a reformer could rise to Mikhail Gorbachev–like levels of popularity in the West, or that he or she could replicate the Bill Clinton/Boris Yeltsin “good buddies” dynamic of the 1990s; the world would be much more skeptical—justifiably!—of Russia’s liberal aspirations the second time around.

But what should Western policies be like? Yakovenko’s comment about surrounding Russia with a mile-high fence and a moat with crocodiles may be bitterly sarcastic, but it’s probably not far from the way many if not most Ukrainians feel right now, with good reason. (They are joined in this sentiment by a good many people in other former Soviet republics and in Eastern Europe.) But even putting the morality of doing so aside, completely isolating a country of 145 million people is simply not feasible for the West—to say nothing of the larger international community, where anti-Russian sentiment is not universal. And it is also important to mention that no one has come up with a realistic plan for de-nuclearizing a post-Putin Russia.

One idea currently floating around—articulated, for instance, by Jamestown Foundation senior fellow Janusz Bugajski in Politico in January—is that the Russian Federation is headed for collapse and disintegration and that Western democracies should not fear this process, but should instead encourage it by reaching out to separatist movements in Russia’s constituent regions. Putin brought up this eventuality as a warning when he told the Rossiya-1 TV channel in late February that the West wants to “dissolve” Russia and establish control over its parts. (It’s hard know to whether he meant Bugajski’s Politico essay when he claimed that such plans had been “put down on paper.”)

But while a reduced and reformed Russia may not be a bad thing, a Western strategy of encouraging the breakup of the Russian Federation is an extremely risky proposition—and a very unlikely one for exactly that reason. The potential for a disastrous outcome is too obvious and significant, and there are far too many things that could go wrong in ways no forecaster can calculate. Think breakaway states run by their own aggressive autocrats. Think ethnic cleansings and other humanitarian catastrophes, and a migrant crisis to dwarf that of 2015. Think someone like Chechen princeling president Ramzan Kadyrov, but with his hands on a nuke. What’s more, while Bugajski suggests that the dissolution of Russia would reduce China’s influence because it would lose its partners in Moscow, one can easily imagine the opposite: a scenario in which China either practically colonizes or actually annexes large formerly Russian territories in the Far East. No Western leader wants to put Putin’s face on a “Miss me yet?” poster some years down the road.

(A much more decentralized federation with extensive regional autonomy, self-government and budgetary control is an entirely different proposition—endorsed, among others, by expatriate Russian opposition members Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It’s worth noting that Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who became a de facto political prisoner from 2003 to 2013 after speaking out for reform and financing opposition groups, took an adamant stance against the actual breakup of the Russian Federation in a recent debate.)

How the world should react if, for example, Chechnya makes another bid for independence and Moscow responds with violence is another matter. But even shorn of the territories where separatist movements have non-fringe appeal, a post-Putin Russia would still be a huge, resource-rich, and nuclear-armed entity to be reckoned with.

How the world’s democracies should deal with that entity is a question with no immediate answer, since we have no idea what kind of political or governmental transition might take place in Russia, or under what circumstances. If such a transition were to be successful, it would need to include Russia’s own reckoning with the horrors of its war in Ukraine. (Khodorkovsky and Kasparov have called for reparations to Ukraine as well as a clear rejection of Russia’s imperial pretensions; so has Navalny.) And there is no guarantee that a post-Putin Russia would become a functional liberal democracy anytime soon, or even that it would start moving in that direction.

But international policies toward a postwar Russia also cannot be based on sweeping and hyperbolic claims about Russian character, the complicity of Russian culture, or collective Russian guilt. A dramatic example of this tendency can be found in Aleksandr Nevzorov, who was Khodorkovsky’s interlocutor in the YouTube debate linked above. Once a hugely popular documentary filmmaker and TV host in Russia, Nevzorov started his career as a militant Russian nationalist and was a Putin supporter as recently as ten years ago. His disillusionment later led him to flee Russia; after the start of the war, he applied for and received Ukrainian citizenship, and last month he was sentenced in absentia by a Moscow court to eight years in prison. With the fervor of the convert—and a certain amount of showmanship—he is now a strident critic not only of the Putin regime but of all things Russian. Today, Nevzorov describes all of Russia’s history and culture as a toxic cesspit, dismisses great Russian writers as hyped-up mediocrities, and even asserts that the great Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov is “very overrated.”

The role of imperialism, nationalism and colonialism in Russian history and culture is a huge and complicated subject. A much more immediate question, also implicated in the controversy over the Navalny Oscar, concerns the extent to which the war in Ukraine should be seen as “Putin’s war” or “Russia’s war.”

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, a “This is not your war” message to Russians seems much productive than the reverse—especially as the Putin regime embarks on a new round of creeping mobilization. From a moral standpoint, the answer to the question, “Whose war?” is hopelessly complicated. Is the Russian public’s vast silence tantamount to consent? Can polls indicating that 70 to 80 percent of Russians support Putin and approve of the “special operation” in Ukraine be fully trusted, especially when they have a notoriously low response rate? Does heavy exposure to shrill war propaganda on Russian television mitigate accountability? Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador in Moscow, recently came down on the side of seeing the war as “Russia’s war”:

And yet in follow-up tweets, McFaul himself conceded much nuance. His own Washington Post op-ed published in late January, to which he linked in his thread, suggests that Russian support for the war is “soft and declining”:

Polls in Russia have high refusal rates, which should not be surprising in a country where you can go to jail for 15 years for “public dissemination of deliberate false information about the use of Russian Armed Forces.” The minority responding to these polls supports the regime, but the majority who choose not to respond likely do not. And even these flawed polls show little enthusiasm and declining support for the war, and a solid majority ready to support Putin if he ends the invasion. Anxiety about the conflict is growing.

McFaul also notes that support for the war is especially weak among younger and more educated respondents.

One critical response to McFaul’s tweet came from strongly pro-Ukraine, Odessa-based American journalist Michael Wasiura:

The lack of “organic support” for the war among Russians—outside a hard core of zealots who, ironically, are often critical of Putin because they believe he’s botched the war—is evident in other ways as well:

Rallies in support of the “special operation” or of the annexation of Ukrainian regions have relied on participants who are either paid or obligated to attend, such as state employees or students from public universities.

The decision to leave Kherson was not met with an outpouring of distress (except in the pro-war corners of Russian social media and propaganda shows on television).

Pro-war bumper stickers and other displays are almost non-existent.

And, no less important, there isn’t exactly a stampede of enlisting volunteers (or private Wagner applicants) to fight in Ukraine. If this were truly “Russia’s war,” the Russian war machine wouldn’t have to rely on conscripts (often ones who are too passive or too ill-informed to get out of conscription), and it certainly wouldn’t need to resort to recruiting convicts from penal colonies and promising hit men and grandma killers money and a clean slate in exchange for their service. (For that matter, the Russian war machine presumably wouldn’t be seeing its military commissars being shot during mobilization meetings or arsons being perpetrated against its enlistment offices, either.)

Russians who speak out against the war today face considerable risks. New reports of draconian sentences—such a six-year prison term for journalist Maria Ponomarenko for a social media post about civilians killed by Russian bombings in Mariupol—keep coming in. A computer programmer in the Ryazan region was recently arrested for “discrediting the Russian armed services”—a charge that carries a possible three-year prison sentence—over a joke posted on a social media network. (The joke has Putin asking defense minister Sergei Shoigu why Russian troops had left Kherson and Shoigu replying, “But Volodya, you said yourself that we must get all the Nazis and fascists out of Ukraine.”) Even schoolchildren have been interrogated for questioning the war; in a particularly horrifying case in the Tula region, some 150 miles south of Moscow, a single father named Alexei Moskalyov was detained after his 12-year-old daughter Masha made an antiwar drawing in an art class. He is now awaiting trial on the same charge of “discrediting” the Russian army while Masha has been temporarily placed in a state orphanage.

Ukrainians who are fighting and dying on the frontlines, fleeing their homes, or enduring the daily threat of bombings may understandably have little sympathy for the travails of Russian protesters and even less for those who are cowed into silence or brainwashed into acquiescence by propaganda on TV. But very few people are heroic without being forced into bravery by circumstances beyond their control.

Obviously, not all members of the Russian opposition, especially those in the safety of exile, are heroes. Some are opportunistic or preoccupied with petty squabbles; some can be tone-deaf; some have made missteps such as urging the European Union to lift sanctions against “liberal” Russian oligarchs. But Navalny—who returned to Russia after his attempted poisoning in 2020 and who urged Russians to resist the war in 2022 while under arrest and facing criminal charges—cannot be faulted for lack of either bravery or principle. Speaking on Yevgeny Kiselyov’s YouTube show, Ukrainian film director/producer Alexander Rodnyansky—an Academy member who said that he had voted for Navalnyoffered his own assessment of negative Ukrainian reactions to the award:

Today, I think that emotionally, that position is understandable. . . . I will not criticize any Ukrainians, or be irritated at them, or accused them of being unfair because they don’t want a film about a Russian political figure [to be honored], even when it’s such an uncompromising opposition activist—one who is, moreover, behind bars today and is being tortured—even in this case, when they say that it rubs them the wrong way, I understand why. . . . But I’m talking about something else: Is this good for Ukraine or not? It is my profound conviction that the award for the film Navalny is good for Ukraine, because it’s a slap in the face to the [Putin] regime. There is no man Putin hates more; he has never mentioned [Navalny’s] name. There is no man they fear more.

Oleksiy Arestovych, the former Zelensky advisor who has spoken warily of Navalny in the past, also distanced himself from criticism of the award, even noting that Yulia Navalnaya could hardly be faulted for not mentioning the war in Ukraine in a situation when such comments could result in additional reprisals against her imprisoned husband.

Obviously, it would be much too optimistic to expect the debates around Navalny to result in bridge-building between the defenders of Ukraine and the Russian opposition. But one may hope that there will come a time when such bridges will be built. Perhaps then this controversy will be remembered only as part of a terrible moment in history.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.