Navalny's top aide says Putin was 'dumb' to put him in prison because it turned him into a symbol
- Navalny's top aide, Leonid Volkov, says Putin was "dumb" to put the opposition leader behind bars.
- Imprisoning Navalny has turned him into a symbol for people to rally behind, Volkov said.
- Volkov came to Washington ahead of Biden's highly anticipated summit with Putin.
WASHINGTON, DC - Russian Vladimir Putin made a mistake putting Alexei Navalny in prison because it's turned him into a symbol, allowing him to attract attention worldwide, according to Leonid Volkov, the Russian opposition leader's chief of staff.
When Navalny was receiving treatment in Germany after being poisoned in Siberia last August, his aides discussed what could happen upon the anti-corruption campaigner's return to Moscow and concluded it was probable he could be arrested and imprisoned. But they also thought it would be "dumb" of Putin to go this route, Volkov told Insider on Thursday while meeting with reporters during a visit to Washington, DC.
It would've been smarter for Putin to place Navalny under house arrest, Volkov said, which would not have caused a "wave of compassion and domestic and international interest" while "disabling him of executing his political duties."
"Well, Putin preferred the dumb way," Volkov said.
Before Navalny went to prison, he was the "political leader" of a vast network in Russia that largely focused on investigation and exposing corruption, Volkov said, but now that Putin has thrown him behind bars he's becoming a "symbol" who offers "moral leadership." Volkov said Navalny has a particularly strong appeal among younger voters in Russia, underscoring that Putin is losing the war to win over this demographic.
After he was arrested upon returning to Moscow in January, Navalny was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for violating parole - including while he received treatment in Germany - from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that leading human rights groups decried as politically motivated.
Navalny's imprisonment led to mass protests across Russia in recent months, with young demonstrators flooding the streets of major cities.
Currently living in exile in Lithuania, Volkov came to the US this week to voice the concerns of Navalny's movement ahead of the highly anticipated summit between Putin and President Joe Biden in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16. Tensions between the US and Russia have escalated dramatically in recent years, and the Biden administration has taken a particular interest in Navalny - by far Putin's most prominent critic.
In March, Biden slapped sanctions on a number of Russian officials over Navalny's poisoning. It's widely agreed Putin ordered the poisoning and that it was an attempted assassination, though the Russian president has scoffed at these allegations. Many of Putin's opponents have died in violent and suspicious ways over his two decades in power.
Former US officials and experts have expressed skepticism over what Biden can achieve at the meeting, and warned the president risks handing the Kremlin a victory by boosting Putin's image on the international stage and granting him legitimacy without any guarantees the summit will generate results favorable to the US. The Biden administration has countered such criticism by contending that meeting with adversaries is vital to working through differences.
-The Hill (@thehill) June 11, 2021
Just one week before the Biden-Putin summit, Navalny's political network on Wednesday was officially outlawed in Russia after a Moscow court declared it to be "extremist." This sent a clear message to Biden the Kremlin is unswayed by US criticism and pressure over Putin's remarkable crackdown on dissent.
Putin has already used the Geneva summit to fuel his domestic propaganda machine, Volkov said, projecting himself to the Russian people as an important and respected international player.
When asked whether Biden has played into Putin's hands by offering up the summit, Volkov told Insider, "I don't want to judge in advance. Let's see what happens there in Geneva. We have a feeling that our message resonates. We have a feeling that the administration is thinking what to squeeze out of Putin, which concessions they could actually achieve."
While in Washington, Volkov has held a series of meetings - including with top lawmakers like Sen. Bob Menendez (chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, among others.
Volkov is calling on the US to work with the UK in particular to impose sanctions on the Russian oligarchs and officials closest to Putin, noting that the network has compiled a list of 35 people in this regard. The network has said that the existing sanctions aren't having enough of an impact because they're not targeting the right people.
There's no reset button with Putin, Volkov said, he only understands the "language of strength."
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