Navalny Comes out for Ukraine's 1991 border

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s jailed opposition leader, has published a manifesto for the first time in his long and varied political career. Is this “better late than never”, or “too little, too late”?

The manifesto has fifteen points, but most discussion has centred on a small handful of them. Perhaps most notably, as well as calling for the unconditional withdrawal of troops and cooperation with international investigations into Russian war crimes, Navalny has made a U-turn on his prior position regarding Ukraine’s borders, particularly Crimea:

“What are Ukraine’s borders? They are similar to Russia’s — they’re internationally recognized and defined in 1991. Russia also recognized these borders back then, and it must recognize them today as well. There is nothing to discuss here.”

There may be “nothing to discuss” now, but a change has clearly taken place — in 2014, when asked whether he would return Crimea to Ukraine if he became leader of Russia, Navalny gave a now-famous line: “what, is Crimea just a sausage sandwich to be bandied back and forth?”. In 2016, he said that if he gained the leadership, Crimea would have a “proper referendum”. His 2023 position has been welcomed by many, and likely reflects a perceived shift in perspective from Navalny’s base, an attempt to reposition himself in the middle of the “sensible” Russian liberal population.

The other main talking point has proved more contentious. Given extensive and ongoing debates about Russian imperialism and collective responsibility, Navalny has placed a flag in the sand:

“Are all Russians inherently imperialistic? This is nonsense. For example, Belarus is also involved in the war against Ukraine. Does this mean that the Belarusians also have an imperial mindset? No, they merely also have a dictator in power. There will always be people with imperial views in Russia, just like in any other country with historical preconditions for this, but they are far from being the majority. There is no reason to weep and wail about it. Such people should be defeated in elections, just as both right-wing and left-wing radicals get defeated in developed countries.”

Navalny is largely correct: imperialism is, first and foremost, the domination of one country’s ruling class over another country, rather than an interpersonal or cultural phenomenon (though the latter aspects can appear as symptoms of the former). While individual Russian people may express or exhibit conservative and imperialistic beliefs, they are not the arbiters nor the main perpetrators of Russian imperialism: that lies with Putin, his cabinet, and his army.

This will not, however, be particularly reassuring for many Ukrainians, who are all too aware of how the present invasion and war plays into a historical pattern of successive Russian governments repressing Ukrainian national identity.

Once upon a time Putin was, however foolishly, painted as the “sensible” candidate, a somber and astute statesman who wouldn’t make any brash decisions. This proved a costly mistake. It will be little comfort to the many Ukrainians whose lives and homes have been destroyed as a result of that mistake that Navalny, a man who in the past has been happy to ally with Russia’s nationalist and far right movements for gains in the polls, has now placed the blame for Russian imperialism solely at Putin’s feet.

None of this stops Navalny’s manifesto from being a broadly positive and constructive step for the Russian opposition. But whether he will be the one to implement the political programme he proposes is another question entirely. Navalny remains in prison with poor health, and will likely stay there as long as Putin and his party are in power. As Navalny himself is the only opposition candidate with anywhere near national recognition or popularity, his prospects for release in the short to medium term are looking slim.