The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Navalny’s fiery indictment of the ‘small man in a bunker’ could rattle Putin’s autocracy

Police officers detain a supporter of Alexei Navalny during a protest in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.
Police officers detain a supporter of Alexei Navalny during a protest in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
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HAVING FAILED to kill Alexei Navalny in a poisoning attack, Russian ruler Vladimir Putin on Tuesday settled for second-best — condemning his nemesis to years in prison. After a farcical hearing, a Moscow judge ordered Mr. Navalny to begin serving more than 2  ½  years for a six-year-old conviction that was found to be unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights. But not before Mr. Navalny, who courageously returned to Russia last month knowing he would likely be jailed, delivered his own withering indictment of the “small man in a bunker” who now faces the most serious political challenge in his 20 years of rule.

“I mortally offended [Putin] by surviving,” Mr. Navalny said of the attempt by the FSB spy agency to poison him with Novichok, a banned chemical weapon — a plot the dissident himself helped expose during the five months he spent recuperating in Germany. “Murder is the only way he knows how to fight. He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner.”

Mr. Navalny’s words have the potential to move events in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of his supporters have turned out in scores of cities across the country the past two weekends to protest his arrest, braving subzero temperatures and the batons of riot police. According to Mr. Navalny’s organization, some 12,000 were arrested — the largest mass political detentions in Russia since the Stalinist era. A video Mr. Navalny released last month documenting Mr. Putin’s corruption, including the vast palace he constructed on the Black Sea coast, has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. His fiery statement in court Tuesday was seen live online by half a million people, according to aides.

The Putin regime is probably not at risk of collapse. But its leader clearly fears the possibility of a “color revolution” like those that toppled autocratic and pro-Moscow regimes in Ukraine and Georgia. “This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people,” Mr. Navalny said. “They’re imprisoning one person to frighten millions.” Most likely, it won’t work. Though Mr. Navalny may now be locked away, the protest movement he inspired is likely to continue, driven by the powerful political network he has managed to create. His aides claim that his emails and videos now routinely reach 10 million to 12 million people; his organization, which has offices in 40 cities, has been funded by small donations from more than 200,000 people.

Western governments should be doing what they can to help this unprecedented challenge to Mr. Putin’s autocracy survive and grow. The United States and many European capitals have been rhetorically supportive of Mr. Navalny: Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued another in a series of statements Tuesday calling for his release. But the Biden administration and European Union should follow up with sanctions against the Russian officials involved in the latest repression — and they should heed the pleas of Mr. Navalny for action to expose and freeze the illicit assets held by Mr. Putin and his cronies outside Russia. Mr. Putin has dedicated himself to exploiting the weaknesses in democratic systems. Now is the time to return the favor.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: Alexei Navalny wants Biden to sanction Putin’s cronies

David Ignatius: Even from prison, Navalny is the most potent political threat Putin has ever faced

Vladimir Kara-Muza: Biden’s predecessors emboldened Putin. Here’s how he can get Russia right.

The Post’s View: Russians just revealed Vladimir Putin’s weakness

Max Boot: Biden must act to save Navalny’s life — and hopes of freedom in Russia