- Russia’s Vladimir Putin is cracking down hard on the movement around Alexei Navalny.
- In an interview Friday, a Kremlin source said to expect an even harder line in future.
- Intelligence sources told Insider Putin likely took note from from other leaders whose harsh crackdowns paid off.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging a crackdown on opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his supporters, intentionally choosing the most brutal playbook, according to intelligence officials and hints from the Kremlin itself.
Per sources who spoke to Insider, Putin is likely taking inspiration from events in Venezuela and Belarus, where embattled leaders responded to uprisings in brutal fashion — and are still in power today.
Navalny’s supporters have been protesting his detention, which culminating in a long prison sentence this week after he was convicted of breaking his parole while recovering in Germany from being poisoned.
He was hit with a nerve agent last August and collapsed on a flight in Siberia. Considerable evidence points towards Russian intelligence after an investigation into the movements of agents were uncovered by the outlet Bellingcat.
Navalny has directly accused Putin of being behind the poisoning.
Russia has been shaken by well-attended demonstrations the last two weekends around the country in support of Navalny. The level of support appears to have spooked Kremlin security officials.
A Central European intelligence official with extensive experience working with Russia told Insider: “The Russians are not bluffing.”
“Putin knows that the only way these sorts of uprising work is if the regime blinks and shies away from cracking down hard.
“He’s seen Venezuela and Belarus refuse to budge no matter how much pressure comes in from abroad. For him it’s an obvious choice.”
Seeming to illustrate the point, Russia on Friday moved to expel European diplomats who attended protests in support of Navalny.
An anonymous Kremlin official agreed in an interview with Reuters, telling the news agency of the police violence and arrests so far: “this is just a warm-up.”
The Reuters source continued: “The real adventures definitely come later. A scenario where we see an increasingly forceful reaction across the country is completely realistic.”
Another intelligence source, who works for an EU member state, agreed with that assessment.
He pointed to a Friday hearing in Russia on a non-criminal slander charge directed at Navalny. It has seen him in court again to face new charges less than a week after his prison sentence.
“They dragged the guy out of court to deal with some civil case, of course they do this and similar things to everyone around him and his movement,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
“The point is to draw a mess around his name in the government-controlled media while wearing down him and his supporters with these grinding cases.
“The warning is anyone who works with Navalny will be harassed non-stop and possibly lose everything. And anyone who protests on the street will get beatings and criminal charges.”
This has worked well in the past two years for rulers in Belarus and Venezuela, according to the intelligence officials. Putin has been active in both conflicts supporting the regimes.
“If you’re Putin you look at Ukraine, where his ally flinched on brutal crackdowns until it was too late, and then you look at Venezuela and Belarus and how they survived by harshly hitting back immediately,” the official said.
(Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by a popular uprising in 2014, leading to immediate hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.)
“There will be a high price for taking to the streets… yes there are sanctions that could hurt Putin but I sense Putin has decided sanctions beat being overthrown and he’s not willing to take any risks.”
“You can’t deter him from a course of action he’s convinced is required for survival,” added the official.
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