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The invasion of Ukraine isn’t going as planned for the Putin regime, but on the home front, a crackdown on dissent has largely succeeded for now

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In Paris, a short distance from the Louvre, an activist in a Putin mask visits a mockup of the punishment cell where Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny is being held.STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images

In his closing statement to a Moscow court, just before he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his outspoken opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Kara-Murza reminded those in attendance that Russia had been down this repressive direction before.

“I’ve been surprised by the extent to which my trial, in its secrecy and its contempt for legal norms, has surpassed even the trials of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and ‘70s,” Mr. Kara-Murza told the court on April 17. “We’ve gone beyond the 1970s – all the way back to the 1930s.”

The 1930s in Russia were the time of Joseph Stalin’s purges, show trials and extrajudicial executions. For the 23 years that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in power, he has faced accusations that he seeks to rehabilitate Stalinism and restore the Soviet empire. Until a year ago, the Kremlin could comfortably swat such talk away as hyperbole.

But Mr. Kara-Murza, the son of a Soviet dissident and the bearer of a master’s degree in history from Cambridge University, can hardly be accused of choosing his words lightly. The 41-year-old veteran of the anti-Putin opposition movement has survived two poisonings, as well as the 2015 assassination of his close friend and political mentor, Boris Nemtsov. Now he faces a quarter-century in jail for his outspoken opposition to the war Mr. Putin launched against Ukraine 14 months ago.

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Law-enforcement officers sit in a Moscow court building on April 17 as a TV broadcasts a hearing in progress for Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza.Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The Kremlin has long waged a different kind of war against its domestic political opponents. While the invasion of Ukraine hasn’t gone according to Mr. Putin’s plan, the battle for the home front has been a complete victory for the regime, with effectively no one left alive and at liberty to oppose him inside Russia.

Mr. Kara-Murza was arrested in April, 2022, 15 months after Russian authorities arrested Alexey Navalny, the de facto leader of the anti-Putin opposition.

Since then, any Kremlin critic with a political following who remained in Russia became a potential target.

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Ilya Yashin makes a virtual court appearance in an appeal, which he lost, of his sentence on 'fake news' charges.Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press

Two days after Mr. Kara-Murza was sentenced, Ilya Yashin – another veteran opposition activist who until 2021 held a seat on Moscow’s city council – lost his appeal of an eight-and-a-half-year jail sentence for spreading “fake news” about the Russian military.

Mr. Yashin’s crime was to describe, in a video posted to his YouTube channel, the mass killing of Ukrainian civilians in the city of Bucha last year as a “massacre.”

“Putin is a war criminal, and I remain behind bars – the man who opposes the war he has unleashed. Don’t you think, citizens of the court, that by keeping me in prison, you become his accomplices?” Mr. Yashin said before his appeal was dismissed.

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Pro-Navalny protesters rally in Paris on April 23 outside the presumed home of Svetlana Maniovich, the wife of Russia's defence minister.Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

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Police in Moscow arrest Mr. Navalny in 2012 and clash with his supporters in 2021.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images; Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The repressive measures have been effective. Where Mr. Navalny and his allies were previously able to muster tens of thousands of protesters into the streets on a semi-regular basis, there is now almost no public opposition in Russia to the Kremlin’s war of aggression.

Over the weekend, Mr. Navalny’s allies organized rallies in 17 cities around the world – including Toronto, Belgrade, Munich and Tel Aviv – calling for his freedom. Tellingly, no Russian cities took part. Participating in an unsanctioned street protest in Russia previously resulted in the relatively light punishment of what’s known as “administrative detention” – 15 days in jail. Now, simply criticizing the war, or expressing support for the Western sanctions against Russia, is equated with treason, the charge that Mr. Kara-Murza was convicted of.

The crackdown shows no signs of slowing. Mr. Navalny said in a social media statement published by his supporters last week that he is facing new charges of “terrorism” that could keep him behind bars for an additional 30 years.

“I’m facing 30 years in this case, probably a life sentence in the next one,” Mr. Navalny said. He dismissed the allegation that he had somehow been involved – from the isolation unit of his maximum-security prison outside Moscow – in the April bombing of a St. Petersburg café that killed a prominent pro-war blogger as “absurd.”

Mr. Navalny, a lawyer who gained a massive following by exposing how Mr. Putin’s inner circle has enriched itself during his rule, has been in jail since 2021 on charges of fraud and contempt of court that are widely viewed as punishment for his political activity.

In 2020, the 46-year-old survived an assassination attempt that involved the use of Novichok, a Soviet-designed nerve agent. Bellingcat, an open-source research team based in Britain, concluded that the attempted murder was carried out by members of the Russian security services who had been following Mr. Navalny for months.

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Pro-Navalny graffiti covers a replica of his jail cell near the Louvre in Paris this past March.STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images

Both Mr. Kara-Murza and Mr. Navalny are believed to be in poor health, partly as a result of their poisoning attacks, partly because of their treatment behind bars. The conditions of Mr. Navalny’s detention are particularly harsh.

Last week, Mr. Navalny was punished with a stint in the isolation cell of his prison in the Vladimir region for at least the 14th time in the past eight months. The reasons for him being sentenced to isolation have ranged from having his shirt collar unbuttoned to quoting from a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that called for his release.

Since August – when he was first punished for trying to organize a prisoners trade union – he has only been allowed out of the isolation ward for a handful of days at a time before being returned to it.

“The SHU is a 2.5x3 metre concrete kennel,” was how Mr. Navalny described the punishment cell in a January statement released through his lawyers (who are denied access to him while he’s in isolation).

“There’s no ventilation. At night you lie there and feel like a fish on the shore. The iron bunk is fastened to the wall, like on a train, but the lever that lowers it is on the outside. At 5 a.m. they take away your mattress and pillow (they call it ‘soft equipment’) and raise your bunk. At 9 p.m. the bunk is lowered again and the mattress is returned. There’s an iron table, an iron bench, a sink, a hole in the floor and there are two cameras under the ceiling.”

The Twitter thread about Mr. Navalny’s life in prison was accompanied by grim photographs of his squat toilet, iron bunk and the wooden stool that he sits on while waiting for the 75 minutes a day when he’s allowed access to a pen and paper.

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Visitors to Paris peer into the replica of Mr. Navalny's cell. Since his imprisonment, he has spent only a handful of days outside the isolation ward.Thomas Padilla/The Associated Press

Mr. Navalny, Mr. Kara-Murza and Mr. Yashin are among 552 political prisoners in Russia, according to a count compiled by the Memorial human-rights group. Even Memorial, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization that was founded in the late Soviet era to expose Stalin’s crimes, has now been banned from working in Mr. Putin’s Russia. The group’s 70-year-old co-chair, Oleg Orlov, is under investigation for his own criticisms of the war against Ukraine.

Russian society has been criticized in Ukraine and some parts of the West for its refusal or inability to resist Mr. Putin’s regime. But the assault on Russia’s opposition escalated dramatically in the run-up to the February, 2022, start of full-scale war, leading to speculation that the crackdown was a precursor operation to an invasion Mr. Putin had already decided to launch.

“When Navalny came back to Russia in 2021, a high-level decision was made to destroy the entire opposition,” said Oleg Kozlovsky, Russia researcher for Amnesty International, referring to Mr. Navalny’s decision to return to Russia in January, 2021, after receiving treatment in Germany for the Novichok attack. “By early 2022, there was almost no organized civil society that could organize some kind of campaign against the war. Maybe that was the plan from the start.”

Mr. Kozlovsky, who in his youth was involved in organizing some of the biggest protests against Mr. Putin’s regime – a role that saw him serve four 15-day sentences in administrative detention – said the opposition had effectively been decapitated by the arrests of Mr. Navalny, Mr. Kara-Murza and Mr. Yashin. Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and the Open Russia movement founded by former oil tycoon and onetime political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky were both declared “extremist” organizations in 2021 and forced to shut down.

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Workers set up an election poster of Mr. Putin and then-president Dmitry Medvedev in Krasnodar, Russia, in 2011.Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters

Marc Bennetts, author of I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives, a book about the anti-Putin opposition, said Russia’s slide toward outright autocracy began in 2011 and 2012, when Mr. Navalny emerged as the face of mass protests against election-rigging and Mr. Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin after four years in the theoretically junior post of prime minister.

Mr. Putin was shaken by the Arab Spring revolutions that deposed a series of Kremlin-friendly dictators in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed by a furious mob. Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, believed the Arab revolutions were made in Washington and became convinced that the United States was seeking regime change in Moscow too.

“Putin was spooked,” Mr. Bennetts said. “From that point on, it was not just a matter of the survival of the regime, but his own personal survival. He was haunted by the fate of Gaddafi and paranoid that he was next.”

Despite the escalating pressure on the opposition, Mr. Yashin stayed in Russia, and Mr. Navalny and Mr. Kara-Murza both returned from abroad last year despite the high likelihood that they would be arrested. But many other Putin critics fled the country in the decade before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Figures such as Mr. Khodorkovsky and chessmaster Garry Kasparov have been reduced to speaking to foreign audiences about their plans for after Mr. Putin is ousted from power – with little ability to help bring that moment about. “Right now, they can’t really influence things within Russia,” Mr. Bennetts said. “They’re planning for when or if the Putin regime collapses.”

The opposition figures jailed by the Kremlin are waiting for the same day. Before he was led away to begin his 25-year sentence, Mr. Kara-Murza repeated an opposition slogan that he, Mr. Navalny and Mr. Yashin used to chant with their supporters as they marched through the streets of Moscow in years past.

“Russia will be free,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. “Tell everyone.”

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