February 21, 2024

Navalny's Legacy: Envisioning a Post-Imperial Russia Amidst Ukrainian Crisis

The death of Alexei Navalny on February 16 has prompted glowing praise of the prominent opposition leader’s courageous efforts to transform Putin’s Russia into a “normal country.” In their eulogies, commentators have rightly celebrated Navalny’s promotion of free and fair elections and his campaign against corruption among the Russian elite. Yet, as the invasion of Ukraine has made tragically clear, the normalization of Russia will require fundamental changes not only to its domestic political system but to its relationships with its neighbors and the international community more broadly.

Navalny’s views on foreign policy matters have been a subject of debate. Over the years, his statements about Ukraine often left him open to accusations of supporting the Putin regime’s imperialist project. Shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, he declined to advocate for the peninsula’s return to Ukraine, stating in an interview with Echo Moskvy that Crimea “will remain part of Russia.” Later, after the establishment of a separate Ukrainian Orthodox church in 2018, Navalny lamented the split as a sign of the dissolution of the “Russian world”—one of Putin’s core ideological justifications for his invasion of Ukraine.

For the West, there is no long-term alternative to aiming for a post-imperial Russia—no matter how long it might take or how difficult it may be to achieve

Many took these comments as proof of the old maxim, famously coined by Ukrainian writer and statesman Volodymyr Vynnychenko, that “the Russian liberal ends where Ukraine begins.” To a certain extent, such a critique of Navalny is valid. His apparent indifference toward Ukrainian sovereignty revealed a tendency to subscribe to the type of Russian chauvinist thinking that has fed the country’s aggression towards its neighbors, both now and in the past.

Yet, two significant caveats are in order. First, while Putin evidently intended to recreate the Soviet empire by force, Navalny always rejected the idea that “reunification should be achieved at the end of the barrel of a gun.” His focus lay instead on the right of ethnic Russians to choose their own future. Later on, in his 2014 Echo Moskvy interview, Navalny elaborated on his views on Crimea, asserting that the peninsula “belongs to the people who live in Crimea” and calling for a second, legitimate referendum on its status. Navalny’s belief in self-determination, rather than subjugation by force, also explained his previous insistence on fully implementing the Minsk Accords, which would have granted self-government to Russian-speaking populations in eastern Ukraine while guaranteeing the withdrawal of Moscow’s troops from the region.

Read the full article from The National Interest.

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