Ukrainian soldiers perform a military exercise at a training ground outside Zhitomir. In an interview, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny says it would be a mistake to send weapons to Ukraine. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

As Washington debates whether to send lethal weaponry to the Ukrainian army, one of the Kremlin’s biggest critics, Alexei Navalny, says it would be a mistake.

His opposition to the U.S. proposal, expressed in a wide-ranging interview in his spartan Moscow office, highlights a dilemma for the small fraction of Russians who still sympathize with the United States after a wave of anti-Americanism. They face new dangers after the Feb. 27 assassination of Boris Nemtsov, who along with Navalny was one of the most charismatic leaders of the movement.

Arming Ukraine would be an attempt to dissuade Russia from sending soldiers into Ukraine’s east, where a battle with pro-Russian rebels is smoldering. But many Kremlin critics risk even more pressure over Western ties if their compatriots start getting killed by U.S. weaponry. They are already labeled as fifth-columnists. Few Russians can bring themselves to support the suggestion even as they criticize U.S. policy for not doing enough to halt Putin.

President Obama has come under bipartisan pressure to ship arms. But the Washington debate shows that policymakers know how to shape U.S. opinions better than Russian ones, Navalny said.

Alexei Navalny is a leading Russian opposition leader. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

“I do not think that supplies of weapons, lethal weapons, will change the situation dramatically,” Navalny said. “The fact is that a military victory of Ukraine over Russia is impossible. Putin will get new facts that Americans are fighting the war in Ukraine and not Ukrainians.” Navalny, 38, a lawyer and anti-corruption blogger, was the most pessimistic about the pace of change since he led of the wave of protests three years ago that made up the biggest threat to Putin’s 15 years in power.

After nearly a year shut away under house arrest over charges he says were politically motivated, Navalny now doubts Putin will be forced from power anytime soon. The Russian leader is preparing to keep himself in office for life, taking steps such as stoking a war in Ukraine that go far beyond what the opposition movement ever thought was imaginable, Navalny said.

“We underestimated how far Putin was ready to go in order to keep his power and keep his popularity,” Navalny said.

In the weeks before Nemtsov was slain just steps from the Kremlin walls, he had been pushing for a stepped-up campaign of sanctions against Russia’s elite. Navalny said he supported a similar approach.

Instead of weaponry for Ukraine, Navalny said, a vastly expanded program of Western travel bans against Kremlin supporters would do far more to spur policy changes.

“The introduction of visa and financial restrictions for oligarchs would hit Putin’s regime harder than drones,” Navalny said. “Personal sanctions should be introduced not against 12 people but against the party of war, against a thousand people.”

Aid workers in the war-torn city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine have set up food distribution centers at the local soccer stadium for citizens struggling to survive after months of conflict. (Reuters)

He singled out leaders of Russia’s powerful state-run news media as well as wealthy members of the Russian establishment who criticize Putin behind closed doors but do little to challenge him in public. Many of even the strongest backers of the Kremlin cherish their weekends in southern France and their Miami getaways, he said. That makes them far more vulnerable than the Soviet elite, who concentrated their far more modest wealth at home.

“This will increase the cost of their cooperation with Putin. And it might help split the elites,” he said.

As Navalny was speaking, Putin re­appeared in public after an unexplained absence of about a week and half. Many Russian observers said the uncertainty after his disappearance was a marker of how much of Russia’s stability depends on a single man. Navalny said such a situation was fundamentally unstable.

“The transfer of power, even inside the system, is absolutely unclear, unpredictable,” he said. “And it is possible that a person from the system who will want to replace Putin will have to take much stricter steps, tougher steps, to increase his popularity up to Putin’s standard.”

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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