Thursday, February 11, 2021


Having served in the KGB and as director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), President Vladimir Putin is well versed in cloak-and-dagger espionage. Mr. Putin also holds a black belt in judo, which teaches the art of using one’s opponents’ strength against them. For Mr. Putin, that has meant multifarious attacks in unregulated cyber space, undercutting what has been a powerful force multiplier for free expression and commerce, especially in democracies.

Mr. Putin has targeted social media and networking sites to degrade the U.S. political process and undermine faith in democratic institutions because liberty, freedom and democracy constitute an existential threat to his regime. 

How ironic then, that Mr. Putin is facing the most serious threat ever to his regime from opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a social media master practitioner, to whom Mr. Putin refers only as “the blogger.” 

While hospitalized in Germany, Mr. Navalny released a slick interview he conducted on social media with a Russian FSB officer who allegedly was involved in the chemical weapons attack against him. Calling on his supporters to protest his arrest after he returned to Moscow, Mr. Navalny released a two-hour video on YouTube of a $1.3 billion Black Sea palatial compound allegedly belonging to Mr. Putin, a video which has been viewed over 100 million times. 

During the past month, the Kremlin has tried to lock down cities by closing public transportation, fining social media corporations, spinning the news cycle on state-controlled TV, tightening police cordons, and threatening a prison sentence to citizens who took part in “mass riots.” Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to flood into Russia’s streets, from Moscow to Siberia. 

Demanding Mr. Navalny’s release and chanting “Down with the czar!”, protesters brazenly directed their ire at Mr. Putin. Thousands of them have been arrested, even after Mr. Navalny was farcically sentenced to 21/2 years in prison, with some particularly violent Russian police brutality exposed on social media. 

Mr. Navalny and his followers have forged a mass protest campaign with a sophisticated turbo boost from social media, online networking and encrypted apps. They used the secure app Telegram and social media to instruct their followers to stay on the main streets and assemble in large numbers to impede police efforts to arrest them. 

Like a judo master, Mr. Navalny is turning Mr. Putin’s social media tactics against him. Unmasking a regime which relies on repression to control its population without a vision for the future, Mr. Navalny has become the standard-bearer for change. 

At this point, there is no indication Mr. Navalny’s protest movement has the throw weight to cause the imminent collapse of Mr. Putin’s kleptocratic regime. But by demonstrating the Kremlin is powerless to stop his growing protest movement, Mr. Navalny has called into question Mr. Putin’s ability to govern with the ruthlessness his autocracy requires to survive.

Mr. Putin now could be at risk from potential enemies within his own inner circle, who just might conclude as the KGB did with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 that the czar is no longer up to the task. 

Facing an economy reeling from the drop in global demand for hydrocarbons and exacerbated by COVID-19, as well as a populist uprising in neighboring Belarus, Mr. Putin’s regime security is under unprecedented stress. 

Sending Mr. Navalny to a prison colony for two years amidst a repressive crackdown is a  harbinger of an increasingly unpredictable and unstable Russian landscape, which will scramble the kaleidoscope of the Kremlin’s relationship with the U.S.

President Reagan, who branded the Soviet Union an evil empire, eloquently appealed to General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall, countered Soviet expansion worldwide — and still managed to negotiate comprehensive nuclear arms reductions, set the standard for handling Russia. Mr. Reagan’s deft policy mix avoided a return to worst days of the Cold War and produced far more progress than the Obama administration’s ill-fated “re-set” policy, which never held Russia fully accountable for its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, interference in the U.S. presidential election, or support for Syria’s brutal regime. 

Last week’s renewal of the New START treaty, which came even as President Biden was  lambasting of the Kremlin over Mr. Navalny’s treatment, should be the paradigm for a strategy to counter the Kremlin’s nefarious policies while simultaneously making progress in areas of mutual interest. 

Mr. Biden has asked the intelligence agencies to assess the Kremlin’s use of chemical weapons against Mr. Navalny as well as the SolarWinds cyber attack, Russian election interference, and alleged bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Mr. Biden should throw in Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine, support for Syria and a litany of other human rights abuses to the list of contentious issues which our two nations will need to resolve.

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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