Two years ago Europe witnessed a shocking episode of political self-sacrifice when Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow from Germany, after being poisoned by the Kremlin. The move left many wondering, as having just escaped with his life from the grips of FSB and death, and still not back to his former levels of health, he returned to face incarceration and possible further torture. Having been sentenced to two and a half years in prison, and later nine years, the opposition leader is held at a high security prison, leaving his future, and that of Russian opposition, uncertain.
Two years on from Navalny’s imprisonment, Russia is in an entirely different place. Still viewed as a world power and wielding diplomatic influence on the international stage at the point of his return, the country has now rightly become a pariah. The invasion of Ukraine has sealed the Kremlin’s inability to engage in dialogue, while its alignment with Iran and North Korea, a desperate attempt to show weight, identified Putin as powerless.
News of a Russian deal with Iran came in late Summer, at a time of decisive defeats in Ukraine and troubling protests in Iran. The world started to believe in a Ukrainian military victory and was bracing for what comes from the protests in Iran. For both states, as for every tyrant in distress, a quick victory was essential to survive.
Russo-Iranian alignment is not a new development, especially considering the formalization of the axis in the 2015 coalition with Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah. However, the union was given a renewed perceived importance by the armament deals following the invasion of Ukraine. And while the exchange of military hardware was instrumental in achieving the aim of the Kremlin and Tehran, a battlefield victory was not the end goal, instead seeking geopolitical influence.
Iranian drones provided this very opportunity. Making as much noise in the media as their moped-like engines do in the air, the Russian operated Iranian drones in Ukraine elevated the perceived collaboration of the two states to the level of global geopolitical powers. Yes, two sanctioned economies that rely solely on oil and gas exports, with outdated and underpowered militaries, and fledgling economies were united in their effort to defy the world.
While this move may have had the West guessing as to the real power of the two autocracies, it was taken with a pinch of salt by their neighbours. Azerbaijan, still on the wings of victory over Armenia, now faced a real possibility of two million Iranian Azeris in distress and potentially seeking support, as well as Iranian military exercises on their borders. At the same time, Armenia, which has a military alliance and a common military grouping with Russia, was left wondering over the northern neighbour’s lack of support in their recent war and reluctance to provide a solution for the ever present continuing disputes with Azerbaijan.
In his struggle for friends, legitimacy and points of pressure on the West, Putin has made a colossal miscalculation with Iran. While seeking to muddy the waters through Iranian involvement, the purchases of Iranian drones, together with proposed transfer of missiles in exchange for helicopters, cash and planes, has turned Russian into a laughingstock of the military hardware producing world. Seemingly unable to build basic flying machines, a job that Ukraine has accomplished seemingly from scratch in wartime and under constant bombardment, Russia is left to exchange costly but outdated technology for little in return.
Although Russia’s diplomatic impotency is clear from an outside perspective, it is not visible to the domestic audience, bombarded by propaganda. And while the war, which followed horrific consequences of the COVID pandemic for the country, with a health system weakened by corruption and neglect, is taking yet more lives of their countrymen and women, Russians are not understanding the incapability of the current Russian government in offering a viable future.
Despite the efforts of the Russian opposition to provide a common front, regular infighting, such as the inclusion of Aleksei Venedictov in the “list of 6000” corruptioneers and war supporters by the Navalny team, the scandal around the discreditation of the Dozhd TV channel or many others, work to aid the Kremlin’s agenda of portraying all possible alternatives as incompetent, corrupt agents of the West.
Remaining in prison, Navalny is removed from all political activity in Russia and abroad. He cannot campaign for further sanctions, he cannot campaign to help Ukraine, nor can he campaign against Putin directly. He is, however, also shielded from any scandals and infighting that can discredit him and can remain above all suspicion as a leader who could not abandon his country and function in exile.