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Why Navalny poses a special challenge to Putin’s leadership

Across Russia Wednesday, protesters took to the streets in support of the jailed — and critically ill — opposition leader Alexei Navalny. They denounced the man they blame for his imprisonment, President Vladimir Putin. Amna Nawaz discusses the latest with Celeste Wallander, who was the senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council staff under the Obama administration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across Russia today, protesters took to the streets in support of the jailed and critically ill opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

    As Amna Nawaz tells us, they also marched to denounce the man they blame for his imprisonment, President Vladimir Putin.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As night fell across Russia, protesters gathered in the thousands, answering the call from jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

  • Woman (through translator):

    The situation with Navalny is completely unlawful. And it is happening before everyone's eyes. Everyone thinks it could never happen to them. But if it happens to one person, sooner or later, it could happen to everyone.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jailed in February, Navalny has been on hunger strike for three weeks over lack of medical care. He was transferred to a prison hospital on Monday for so-called vitamin therapy.

    Police responded to his supporters in force, arresting peaceful protesters, including one of Navalny's top allies, opposition figure Lyubov Sobol, who posted a video message from a police van.

  • Lyubov Sobol (through translator):

    I was literally detained for the thought of showing up at the rally. But perfectly well what you should do. You shouldn't be afraid. Navalny should be alive, safe and free.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Earlier this year, Navalny livestreamed his arrest upon arrival from Berlin, where he'd recuperated after an assassination attempt, one that was launched by the Russian government.

    After his arrest, Navalny's anti-corruption organization released a video calling Putin a corrupt monarch, pointing to a billion-dollar palace Putin owned on the Black Sea. Within a day, the video had more than 20 million views, and has now been seen more than 115 million times.

  • Alexei Navalny (through translator):

    He's a kind of czar, he's an autocrat.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Navalny has been active in Russian politics for a decade. In 2012, our Margaret Warner interviewed Navalny when Navalny started his campaign against Putin, calling his party corrupt.

    In 2017, Nick Schifrin followed him again during his campaign for president.

  • Alexei Navalny (through translator):

    They tell us (EXPLETIVE DELETED) you. And we have to say, oh, OK, we're very sorry. But, no, we have gathered here to say we're going to ask these questions and we will obtain the answers.

  • Vladimir Kara-Murza:

    At the end of the day, there are millions of people in Russia who fundamentally reject Putin, who want Russia to finally become a normal European country. There are millions of people in Russia who share our vision.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Vladimir Kara-Murza is a Russian opposition politician. He himself has survived two assassination attempts, he says, by Putin's government. He also says the crackdown in recent years is a sign of Putin's weakness.

  • Vladimir Kara-Murza:

    Why is he so afraid to allow the opposition ON the ballot? Why is he so afraid to allow peaceful opposition demonstrations? This is not the behavior of somebody who's popular and strong.

    This is the behavior of somebody who is weak and very insecure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Today in Moscow, Putin said threats to Russian national security would not go unchallenged.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    Initiators of any provocations threatening our core national security interests are going to regret what they did in a way they haven't regretted anything in a long time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    His warning came amid a massive Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border. Russia-backed separatists have been fighting against Ukrainian forces since 2014. But, this year, Ukraine says Russia has gathered more than 150,000 troops on its border.

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said yesterday he wanted to meet Putin and end the conflict. But he warned, Ukraine would not back down.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    Will Ukraine stop trying to achieve peace by diplomatic means? No, never. but will Ukraine defend itself in case of something? Always.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, more than 1,500 people have been detained so far today across Russia.

    Vladimir Kara-Murza told us he fully expected to be among them, though, at this hour, we do not know his whereabouts.

    We turn now to Celeste Wallander. During the Obama administration, she served as the special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia and Eurasia on the National Security Council staff and as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.

    Celeste Wallander, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Let me start by asking you about President Putin. He has jailed a popular political opponent. He has rounded up protest across the country, amassed troops on the Ukrainian border. What does all of this tell us right now about his hold on power?

  • Celeste Wallander:

    I think that the message from Moscow and from President Putin is that the leadership is feeling quite insecure at home and abroad.

    And President Putin in his speech today tried to draw a connection between those two things. And what we're seeing inside of Russia protests, the activities and effectiveness of the Alexei Navalny opposition organization, is a domestic internal movement.

    But the Kremlin doesn't like to see it that way, because it doesn't like to entertain the thought that Russia — that Putin and the Putin leadership is genuinely facing opposition of millions of Russians. And so it tries to draw the link to the outside world, to the United States, in much the same way that President Putin blamed then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 for the protests when he returned as president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, let me ask you about that political opposition, because Putin has faced critics and opponents before.

    Is there something different about Navalny?

  • Celeste Wallander:

    Navalny is a special challenge for the Russian leadership, the Putin leadership, because Navalny is not of the sort of liberal elite of the standard Russian politicians and oppositions.

    Navalny has a track record is quite a nationalist, actually, and doesn't necessarily have a profile that is strongly advocating liberalism, the package of policies we think of as liberalism. And his main focus and what has made him really popular and well-known in Russia is the anti-corruption campaigns, very effective investigations, very effective use of social media and media and public reporting.

    And so it's the combination of a leader who can't be branded, actually, as sort of a liberal internationalist, but has that credibility as a homegrown, genuine politician with that anti-corruption mission and an effective organization on the ground that clearly has gotten the Kremlin's attention.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Celeste, as you know, the Biden administration has tightened sanctions recently. It's expelled 10 Russian diplomats.

    Navalny supporters say the U.S. should be doing more, they should be targeting the oligarchs who support and uphold Putin with sanctions. Do you believe the U.S. should take that step?

  • Celeste Wallander:

    I think that focusing on individual businessmen is probably not going to be effective in imposing costs on the Russian leadership.

    At this time, most of those Russian businessmen, the ones who are close to Putin and the ones who aren't so close to Putin, have already been sanctioned. You can only sanction people so many times, and it's not going to be effective.

    The better course of action is actually what the Biden White House has done in the last couple of weeks, which is to create a new executive order that creates capabilities not yet used, but clearly demonstrated to target Russian financial systems and, in particular, sovereign debt. And that would really create significant costs for the Putin leadership.

    And I think that that's where the Biden administration rightly has focused its signaling and its capabilities, to be able to send a message to the Russian leadership that it needs to desist, not just on the internal front, with its actions against Navalny and his supporters, but also interference in our elections and in our political systems in the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Celeste Wallander, formerly of the National Security Council staff under President Obama, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

  • Celeste Wallander:

    Thank you.

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