The Kremlin is banking on the expectation that Navalny’s protest movement will exhaust itself, just as others have done in the past. However, a recent opinion poll by the Levada Centre casts some doubt on this.

London: “Your honour, do you by any chance know a good recipe for pickled cucumbers, since it makes no sense talking legal matters with you.” Not perhaps the most subtle comment to make to a judge at your trial, but Alexei Navalny, a lawyer by training, was making a valid point. The 44-year-old continued: “Every second of this trial makes no sense from the legal point of view.” Spot-on, of course. Few trials in Russia follow the law.

Listen to Alexei Fedyarov, a former prosecutor, now working as an advisor to the “Russia Behind Bars” prisoner advocacy group. In 2019, he told a British newspaper, “Judges are not judges in the way normal countries see them; they are part of the government. Their appointment is dependent on government and in particular the security services, who understand their role in a specific way—to act as verification of investigators’ work and no more than that.” Highly-dependent judges are afraid of challenging the conclusions of state investigators and threatening their career prospects, which would explain why Russia’s acquittal rate has dropped to near-historic lows with judicial outcomes now comparable to levels at the height of the Soviet police state. Joseph Stalin would be proud.

The latest figures show that chances of acquittal are about 1 in 400. In other words, just 0.25% of all cases referred to a Russian court last year ended with a not-guilty verdict. Compare this with a British court where the rate in 2018 was 15% in the Lower (Magistrate) Courts, rising to 20% at the Higher (Crown) Court level. A stable 20% acquittal rate is also found in Europe. According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, Russian criminal justice is roughly on par with China, ranked at 101 of 126 countries. Worse still, not only are your chances of being found guilty in a Russian court 99.75%, you will stand a 75% chance of receiving a custodial sentence. When challenged on these high rates, Alexander Bastrykin, one of Russia’s top law enforcement officers, said that he was unconcerned by the low levels of acquittals, claiming that it was simply “a reflection of the professionalism of his employees”. Of course it is.

This is the justice system which shackles Alexei Navalny. Although he seems to have been on the Russian political activist scene for ever, Navalny only came to prominence during a wave of huge street protests in 2012, following the suspected rigged election that put Vladimir Putin back in the Kremlin. Since then, his anti-corruption foundation has continued to publish embarrassing revelations about the extravagant wealth of Putin’s friends and their families.

Navalny’s latest riposte is a wickedly funny video posted on YouTube in January, documenting what he calls “Putin’s Palace”, a billion dollar project on the Black Sea that includes mansions, vineyards, a private casino, even an underground hockey rink, a hookah bar, a stripper’s pole and gold-plated toilet brushes. The video alleges a network of payoffs for Putin’s friends and family, as well as two women romantically involved with Putin since his divorce from his wife, Lyudmila. Navalny quotes a well-known folk song that he says applies to Putin: Three wives are wonderful, what can you say, but on the other hand, I’ve got three mothers-in-law!

As of last week, the mocking video has been seen more than 110 million times and its message of defiance helped bring tens of thousands of protestors onto the streets in hundreds of Russian cities to protest against Putin’s corrupt and authoritarian regime.

No wonder Navalny is not high on Putin’s Christmas card list. From his reaction, nothing riles Vladimir more than Navalny’s mordant sarcasm towards him and his cronies. Putin is also clearly afraid of Navalny’s personal bravery, which is making him the most potent political threat he has ever faced.

Putin’s critics and enemies usually have life-shortening experiences: Yuri Shchekochikhin—poisoned; Sergei Yushenkov—shot; Anna Politkovskaya—shot; Stanislav Markelov—shot; Anastasia Baburova—shot; Natalia Estemirova—shot; Alexander Litvinenko—poisoned by polonium; Boris Nemtsov—shot; Sergei Skripal—poisoned by Novichok (but survived). The list goes on and on, and could probably fill this page.

When news broke of Navalny’s near-death experience on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on 20 August last year, many thought he was yet another victim. However, thanks to an alert pilot, who probably was not aware of the plot to kill Navalny, the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk where he was put in a coma in the local hospital, before evacuation to a hospital in Berlin. Here experts discovered that Navalny had been poisoned by a new type of Novichok, not encountered before, which could only have been concocted in Russian government laboratories. The British investigative journalism website, Bellingcat, confirmed that Navalny had been stalked by an intelligence team of doctors and chemical weapons specialists operating out of the FSB Criminalistics Institute. It was this team that had spread the deadly new Novichok on Navalny’s underpants, following orders that could only have come from the highest level in the Kremlin—Vladimir Putin himself.

But why did Putin allegedly order the silencing of Navalny? After all, even Navalny had frequently said that he was more dangerous to the government dead than alive. For years, Putin has vacillated about what to do with Navalny. Ignore, jail, or use other, more shadowy methods. He was first alarmed in 2013 when Navalny ran for mayor of Moscow and won nearly 30% of the votes, despite the usual ballot rigging by the authorities. Suddenly there was a real potential threat to Putin’s reign and this new upstart must be stopped at all cost.

The easy answer was to use the dodgy law system, as judges will always do the Kremlin’s bidding. Sure enough the authorities dug up successive charges of embezzlement, transparently politically motivated, which did the trick. Although Navalny vigorously claimed that the trial had been bogus and unmerited, a point agreed by the European Court of Human Rights, this was a “criminal conviction”, which the Russian Electoral Commission could use to ban him from running in a presidential election until after 2028. Job done. Suddenly Putin was safe from genuine competition.

With supreme irony, Navalny was found guilty this month of violating terms of his probation while convalescing in Germany from the Novichok poisoning. He was charged with not reporting to the Russian authorities while in hospital. Emphasising that he returned to Russia immediately after his health allowed, Navalny claimed: “I wasn’t hiding. The whole world knew where I was.” The judge was unconvinced by this argument and sentenced him to two years and eight months in a penal colony.

Was Navalny’s return to Russia a mistake? Vladimir Putin’s fall-back position, should Navalny survive the poisoning, was that he would stay in the West for safety. After all, enemies overseas are of little danger to Putin, and had Navalny decided not to return to his homeland it would have been a victory for the Kremlin. This happened in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and ex-world chess champion Gary Kasparov, who cause Putin little trouble nowadays.

Whether Navalny’s timing was correct is a different question. His choice of January, when temperatures in Yakutsk, for example, are as low as minus 43 degrees centigrade, might have put a chill on plans for protests. But they didn’t. Wave after wave of Russians ventured out, braving not just the weather, but also police using truncheons and electric-shock batons while arresting thousands of protestors. Many of his supporters believe that he should have returned in the summer to achieve maximum impact just before the next Duma elections in September, instead of now languishing out of sight in prison.

The Kremlin is banking on the expectation that Navalny’s protest movement will exhaust itself, just as others have done in the past. However, a recent opinion poll by the Levada Centre casts some doubt on this. Results show that 45% of Russians expect to see more, not less, political protests, the largest proportion recorded since before Putin came to power in 1999-2000. The Kremlin-controlled media outlets are going full pelt to paint Navalny as “an enemy of the people”, a classic phrase much favoured by Joseph Stalin. But in the month following his return, Navalny was mentioned on leading social media networks 10.8 million times, more than Putin for the first time ever. When canvassed, some demonstrators say they came out not so much to back Navalny as much as to voice dissatisfaction with Putin’s corrupt government. Others said they back Navalny not because they want him to replace Putin, but because they see him as the agent of change.

After more than 20 years in power, President Putin will find Alexei Navalny looming large in his calculations for the future. The next presidential elections are due in 2024, so Vladimir will have three years to ponder on what to do. As will Navalny, unless something harmful happens to him while in prison. But as Alexei said while recovering in Germany, “Putin’s only method is killing people. However much he pretends to be a great geo-politician, he’ll go down in history as a poisoner. There was Alexander the Liberator, Yaroslav the Wise, and Putin the Underpants Poisoner.”

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.