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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Dan Sabbagh

Alexei Navalny aide says his survival may depend on value to Vladimir Putin

Alexei Navalny seen on a video link provided by the Russian federal penitentiary service in a courtroom in Moscow last month
Alexei Navalny seen on a video link provided by the Russian federal penitentiary service in a courtroom in Moscow last month. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Alexei Navalny’s survival may depend on his value to Vladimir Putin as a future bargaining chip, his chief aide said, warning that the opposition leader’s health was at risk after being forced into indefinite solitary confinement.

Leonid Volkov, speaking on a visit to London, added that Navalny had lost access to his family and was being permanently detained in a “8 by 12ft” cell after the isolation decision by Russian authorities last week.

Only Navalny’s lawyers were allowed to visit his prison colony on weekdays, and even then, Volkov said, “they are not allowed to see him; they only can talk to him through an opaque glass”, meaning they cannot determine his physical condition.

The politician’s aide said it was felt that Navalny had previously enjoyed some degree of protection because he could regularly get his message out from inside prison and so keep up his profile inside and outside Russia.

Allies maintain a Twitter feed, comprised of Navalny’s communication to his lawyers, but they worry it may become infrequent, or that his strength may falter and he will slowly fade from public attention.

“Now the situation is, I have to admit, very bad, because now his communication with the outside world is very limited, and his health is endangered and his physical condition might get worse,” Volkov said, adding: “We have to keep talking about Navalny.”

Navalny’s supporters had believed Putin would not want the opposition leader to die violently in jail, because the Russian president would be blamed. “The world was watching, he was kind of protected,” the aide said.

But the invasion of Ukraine in February had changed their thinking. “Our assessment of how crazy Putin actually is was wrong,” Volkov warned, because it was clear the Russian leader “doesn’t care about sanctions, about international reaction”.

Yet, despite that, the chief adviser said he hoped Navalny would ultimately survive, despite his worsening incarceration, because of his value to the Russian president in any eventual negotiations to end the war in Ukraine.

“Putin is not very much in touch with reality apparently, but even he thinks about possible future scenarios. Under such circumstances Navalny is a potential bargaining chip. This could also be important,” Volkov said.

Leonid Volkov with Alexei Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, at the European parliament in September
Leonid Volkov with Alexei Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, at the European parliament in September. Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/EPA

Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, was first jailed in February 2021 after being detained a month earlier on his return from Germany, where he had been recovering after an attempt on his life.

Russia’s FSB spy agency had, Navalny said, tried to assassinate him by applying the nerve agent novichok to the “inner seams” of the opposition leader’s underpants. After wearing them he collapsed on a flight in Russia and was ultimately treated in Germany, before deciding to return home.

Since he was first imprisoned Navalny’s prison term has been increased, and then in the summer he was transferred to a maximum-security penal colony. He was placed in 15-day spells of solitary confinement until last week his isolation was made permanent.

The aide said it was right that Navalny had chosen to return from Germany. “He didn’t want to become yet another like ex-politician in exile,” Volkov said, arguing that “you have to be in the country” to be an active politician in Russia. “We always knew he would return. It was never subject for discussion.”

Volkov, based in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, is chief of staff for Navalny and the chief executive of the politician’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. He was chief aide during Navalny’s 2018 presidential campaign and is calling for further sanctions against Russia to help end the war in Ukraine.

He was in the UK to meet the Foreign Office to press for London to impose economic sanctions on 6,700 second-tier Russian leaders, including politicians, officials and ideologues. Volkov said he believed trade sanctions involving economic sectors had reached their limit and a change of tack was needed.

“Europe is stuck, they can’t do any further sectoral sanctions, because every other sectoral sanction will really hit something very essential [to a particular country],” he said, citing Belgium’s reluctance to support sanctions on diamonds, and Greek concern about further Russian oil sanctions.

Sanctioning second-tier individuals was an alternative that would hurt Russia’s wider leadership but not western economies, Volkov said. “Personal assumptions can make it painful to Putin. They don’t lead to increase in gas and electricity prices.”

He said British support was particularly helpful as “London accounts for more than 50% if not 80% of storage for money stolen from Russian taxpayers”, and Volkov had the support of some backbench Conservatives such as Bob Seely, the chair of parliament’s all-party group on Russia.

At the same time, Volkov argued the sanctions should be easily reversible if the individual targeted renounced Putin: “What we suggest is to sanction much more people, but also to give them an alternative, to say OK, there is a way out, condemn the war, break your ties with Putin, leave the country, stop working for him.”

As for the progress of the war, Volkov fears it will be harder for Kyiv to maintain its recent success on the battlefield as 300,000 mobilised Russian troops dig in – meaning further economic sanctions could become more important.

It was “not so obvious” what would happen after the retreat from Kherson, Volkov said, adding: “I am not so optimistic about, like, possible Ukrainian military advances, although hopefully they will be able to achieve something.”

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