If you were to ask the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny is currently an involuntary resident of Corrective Colony No. 2 in Vladimir Oblast because he violated the terms of his parole, which stemmed from a 2014 conviction for fraud and money laundering.
Laughably missing from this explanation is the fact that when Navalny failed to attend court-ordered bi-monthly meetings with Russian officials from Sept. to Dec. 2021, the staunch Putin critic and anti-corruption activist was hospitalized in Berlin. He was recovering from a Kremlin assassination attempt that involved the deadly nerve agent Novichok.
It's easy to assume that Vladimir Putin and his allies' contempt for Navalny stems from the latter's defiant criticism of the Russian president. Or from Navalny's dramatic exposés of government corruption and his ability to galvanize crowds to rail against the ruling kleptocracy. But the lengths that pro-Putin allies have gone to stamp out the "Smart Voting" campaign launched by Navalny's supporters suggests it's Navalny the political strategist, not the activist, that Putin fears most.
Since 2003, Putin's United Russia political party has been the overwhelmingly dominant political faction in the Russian Federation. Presently, United Russia holds 75% of the seats in the lower house of the Federal Assembly. While United Russia proclaims itself to be a bastion of "Russian conservatism," the party lacks a consistent political ideology. Instead, United Russia is a "party of power," serving as an extension of the Kremlin by wholly supporting all of Putin's policies.
Aside from all the perks that come with having an arcane relationship with the Kremlin, such as control over the mainstream state-sponsored media, United Russia has also enjoyed the benefit of having no real consolidated opposition.
Unlike in the United States, which is dominated by two political parties, a United Russia candidate can run against multiple opposition party candidates. As a result, opposition candidates typically split the vote, giving a United Russia candidate the majority, even when the party loses the popular vote. For example, in the 2016 Moscow City parliament (Duma) elections, United Russia won 90% of the seats in the lower house while only receiving a little over 40% of the total vote.
To combat this de facto Putin hegemony, in 2018, Navalny and his supporters came up with a tactical voting strategy dubbed "Smart Voting." The premise is relatively straightforward. Upon examining the field of candidates, team Navalny endorses the political hopeful most likely to defeat the United Russia candidate in a specific voting region.
Using Smart Voting, Navalny's team has backed candidates from a range of party affiliations and ideologies, taking into account a particular region's voting history and conducting interviews with local political analysts and experts. Rather than installing any one particular political party, the only singular goal of Smart Voting is defeating the party Navalny once famously labeled "the party of crooks and thieves."
"We all want to see the Beautiful Russia of the Future as soon as possible, but we have to be realistic," reads the Smart Voting website. "It is not going to happen overnight ... Smart Voting helps make the first step toward restoring true competition to our political life."
Unsurprisingly, dethroning Putin's elected vassals and "restoring true competition" to Russian political life isn't an easy task.
In the late 2010s, after poor economic conditions and a series of tax increases caused public support for United Russia to wane, candidates began to hide their affiliation with the party. During the 2019 elections for a new Duma, no candidates, including 10 United Russia incumbents, ran under the party's name. However, an investigation found that 31 of the self-styled "independent" candidates had received millions of rubles of support from NGOs purportedly run by United Russia and their pro-Kremlin sister organization, the All-Russia Popular Front. In the run-up to this year's State Duma elections, set for Sept. 17-19, United Russia finds its public support at a mere 27%, the lowest point in the party's 18-year history. This, of course, makes Navalny's Smart Voting movement a genuine existential threat to Putin's regime, causing the Kremlin to dive into its draconian arsenal to stop it.
In early 2021, after mass protests broke out over Navalny's arrest, the Moscow City Court designated organizations linked to Navalny (most notably the Anti-Corruption Foundation) as "extremist" organizations. In the eyes of the Russian government, Smart Voting organizers may as well be members of ISIS or al Qaeda.
Far from being an empty threat, in September, Russian activist Bella Nasibyan was sentenced to five days in jail for "promoting extremist symbols" after the young woman posted a Smart Vote poster on her Instagram. This is just one example of how the Russian government has used the "extremist" moniker to crackdown on Smart Voting. There are countless more.
In May, the computer servers for Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation were hacked, leading hundreds of thousands of Navalny supporters to have their personal information "leaked." In proper dystopian form, human rights group OVD-Info reports that many Smart Voting supporters have suddenly started receiving unexpected visits by Russian police since the leak.
According to OVD-Info, Smart Voting advocates have been interrogated about their support of the banned "extremist" organization and even threatened with jail time if they refused to file criminal complaints against Navalny for "failing to protect databases with their personal information." It's a gallows threat given that one of the Kremlin's cyber units or proxy-cyber groups is most likely responsible for the hacks!
Citing an unnamed source "close to the Federal Security Service (FSB)," the BBC recently reported that the order for the police visits to Navalny supporters had come directly from the Putin presidential administration. Described as "soft terror" and an effort to intimidate potential "smart voters," the police house-calls are reportedly being carried out by Interior Ministry Units of the FSB.
Nevertheless undeterred, in August, Navalny supporters unrolled a downloadable app to help people figure out how to "smart vote" against United Russia. In response, the Russian government immediately went on the offensive, and the state's internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, ordered Apple and Google to delete the app from their stores. Failure to remove access to "information resources" related to organizations deemed a "foreign agent and extremist organization" would result in hefty fines, Roskomnadzor warned the American tech giants.
Demonstrating the bizarre depths the Kremlin is willing to go to protect Putin's fiefdom, in June, a previously unknown Russian wool-trading firm with three employees named Woolintertrade filed a trademark infringement lawsuit claiming "Smart Voting" as a registered trademark of the company.
Basing its decision on the supposed trademark infringement, just recently, the Moscow Arbitration Court ordered Google and Russian tech giant Yandex to stop displaying the phrase "smart voting" in their search engine results. Whether or not Google or Yandex comply with the court's demand may be irrelevant, as the Russian government has no problem taking matters into its own hands.
During the height of pro-Navalny protests in March, Russian authorities sued social media platforms Twitter, Facebook, Google, Tiktok, and Telegram for allegedly failing to delete posts urging children to protest in support of Navalny, which Russia considered illegal. Days after filing the suit, Roskomanadzor announced it was slowing upload speeds to Twitter and threatened to outright ban the social media site in Russia due to the company's refusal to delete "illegal links and publications."
This week, prominent Russian human rights lawyer and attorney for the jailed Navalny, Ivan Pavlov, announced he had fled Russia after the government opened a criminal investigation into him. In a post on Telegram messenger, Pavlov said authorities had imposed restrictions that prevented him from doing anything short of leaving the country. "This was a sign pointing to the exit," Pavlov wrote.
When not weaponizing the legal system, the Kremlin has resorted to tactics more familiar to its influence campaigns on foreign elections.
According to Smart Voting project manager Leonid Volkov, "innumerable fake Smart Voting sites" and mobile apps have flooded Russia's internet recently. "A huge, expensive advertising campaign by fakes has been launched on social media so that people would be confused by the various recommendations and unable to distinguish the real from the fake," Volkov told U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe.
Russia's army of state-run media outlets has likewise joined in the action, offering citizens heavy doses of propaganda that would make Joseph Goebbels proud.
"Smart Voting is a manipulative and destructive technology, the main task of which is to destroy the Russian system of public administration," wrote the Siberia-based Federal Press. In a not-so-thinly veiled threat, the article makes sure to mention that "after the recognition of Navalny's headquarters (banned in Russia) as extremist, monetary support for 'Smart Vote' and similar projects may threaten ordinary citizens with problems with the law. Such actions can be perceived as extremist."
Smart Voting successfully unseating Putin's circle of power and United Russia in the upcoming State Duma elections would be an epic "David vs. Goliath-like" triumph. With the odds so overwhelmingly stacked, there will likely be no heroic ending to the story, and by the end of September, Putin's status quo will remain.
That said, Smart Voting secured victories for hundreds of opposition candidates in local elections in 2018, 2019, and 2020. In addition, research has shown that repressive strategies aimed at manipulating the system, exactly like what we see coming out of the Kremlin, can have the unintended consequence of sparking outrage and turning a population against an authoritarian regime.
At a minimum, based on the Kremlin's mad scramble to stamp out Smart Voting, it seems clear that Putin and his allies are more than just a little unnerved at the prospect of seeing their kingdom brought down by free and fair democratic elections. Putin has already been granted the right to run again for two more terms after 2020 constitutional reforms. Without having United Russia as the majority power in the Russian parliament, Putin's ability to impose further constitutional reforms leading up to the 2024 Russian presidential elections could be dramatically limited. This is the primary basis behind the Kremlin's current fight against Smart Voting and scramble to keep United Russia in power.
Should United Russia somehow miraculously lose the upcoming elections, the palpable feeling of power slipping away could spark a despotic Putin to further shed the democratic facade and fully embrace authoritarianism.
It is likely that if he continues to feel that his majoritarian regime is facing demise, Putin will follow the same playbook as every other authoritarian regime by providing Russians with a perceived external threat. For the KGB-minded Putin, someone who has never truly considered the Cold War over, that external threat will undoubtedly be the West.
Just as in Iran, Cuba, or North Korea, citizens' dissatisfaction will be blamed on "Western aggression." The need to mobilize against these "enemy regimes" will be used to justify hardships and repression. In political science, this act of creating a perceived threat to bolster an authoritarian ruler's power is called "external legitimization."
Fortunately, right now, any political drama or threatening rhetoric by Putin is unlikely to lead to high-intensity conflict or military action. It could, however, lead to increased "grey zone warfare," including cyberattacks, espionage, or covert acts like the ongoing rash of "Havana Syndrome" attacks — essentially anything short of traditional armed conflict that has a shred of plausible deniability.
For Putin, any response by the West to "grey zone" action, including mere accusations, will be a win because it allows the external threat narrative to be reinforced. Conversely, as Navalny and Smart Voting have demonstrated, a fairly well-connected and informed Russian society could end up being the ultimate stress test for a regime that prides itself on its ability to manipulate perception and distort the truth.
Perhaps Navalny offers the most frighteningly accurate answer to the question of just how far Putin is willing to go to maintain power. "It is difficult for me to understand exactly what is going on in his mind," Navalny told Spanish news outlet El Pais. "Putin has been in power for 20 years. It is too long, 20 years of power would spoil anyone and make them crazy. He thinks he can do whatever he wants."
Author Bio: Tim McMillan is a retired police lieutenant, investigative reporter and co-founder and Executive Director of the Debrief. His writing covers defense, science, and the intelligence community.