Today’s guest post is from Matthew Murray, currently Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, who previously served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
When President Putin began Russia’s expanded military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the imprisoned Russian anticorruption activist and political opposition leader Alexey Navalny was on trial once again over fabricated charges of embezzlement. Though Mr. Navalny faces another 15 years in a penal colony, he seized the opportunity during his February 24 hearing to publicly state his opposition to Russia’s war on Ukraine. “This war between Russia and Ukraine was unleashed to cover up the theft from Russian citizens and divert their attention from problems that exist inside the country,” he said.
Mr. Navalny’s statement reflects a deep understanding of the causes of war. Throughout history rulers have started wars to divert and distract attention of their citizens from growing domestic problems and restiveness. And this pattern fits the Russian situation well. In recent years, Putin’s popularity has declined due to failure to modernize Russia’s economy, his flawed management of the Covid-19 pandemic, and—not least—the corruption of his regime and his inner circle. Indeed, last February, when Russian courts initially sentenced Navalny to over two years in prison, tens of thousands of Russian citizens from 109 cities across the country went to the streets to demonstrate against Putin’s rule. In ordering the invasion of Ukraine, Putin may well have been seeking to divert attention from failures at home, including his autocratic control of the political economy for the benefit of himself and the Russian oligarchy.
But it’s more than that: Putin’s aggression may also be aimed at legitimizing his rule at home by installing a new state-sponsored oligarchy in Ukraine. He may be seeking to kill the idea, which took hold in Ukraine during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity at the Maidan. The Maidan Revolution started when Ukrainians took to the streets of the Maidan in central Kyiv to protest then-President Victor Yanukovych’s sudden decision to reverse the nation’s course to join the European Union and engage in free trade with the world’s largest economic bloc. But the Maidan Revolution was not just about one decision or one administration. The Maidan uprising was a revolution against the system of corrupt rule of Yanukovych and the oligarch class that was choking the nation’s potential—and it was also about the idea: the idea that every individual should have the freedom, the right, and the path to fulfill their human potential. This idea fundamentally threatens Putin’s personal authority and autocratic rule. As Ukraine’s reformers have begun to take concrete steps to embed this idea in independent institutions, they set an example for Russian citizens, who may be inspired by Ukraine’s example to demand that their government suppress official corruption and respect for human rights. Continue reading