This morning, under the glare of worldwide media attention, a Russian court sentenced Oleg Navalny, an apolitical former postal worker, to three and half years in prison on embezzlement charges that are widely and correctly considered to be fictitious.
Russia's slide into authoritarianism has been so gradual, and accompanied by so many distractions such as Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and his ban on American adoptions (not to mention his cartoonish image abroad), that many Americans have missed it. Yes, Russia does some bad things, particularly to gays, the common perception goes, but it's still not quite a dictatorship.
Today's events in Moscow should end any ambiguity about what Russia has become under Putin.
Who is Oleg Navalny? He is a former postal worker and father of two who has no involvement in politics. Why would the Kremlin trouble itself to imprison a former postal worker on trumped-up charges? Because his brother is Alexei Navalny, one of Russia's last and most prominent political opposition leaders, and the Russian state is holding Oleg hostage to pressure his brother into silence. To be clear: Putin has imprisoned an innocent postal worker purely as a means of threatening his brother.
"Hostage" is not my word for Oleg Navalny; it is the analytical consensus, used by Carnegie Moscow Center political expert Lilia Shevtsova, by liberal Russian journalists, by human rights lawyers, by Russian opposition organizers, by foreign journalists, and by one 70-year-old pensioner passerby quoted by the New York Times.
Putin's calculus in holding Oleg Navalny hostage is as transparent as it is ruthless. He wants to crush Alexei Navalny, whom he sees as representing one of the last substantial, internal political threats to his rule. And he wants to do it with cruel, brute force. But he does not want to make Alexei Navalny into a martyr by giving him jail time or worse.
Putin's solution is to release Alexei from prison — he was also convicted today, but his sentence suspended, freeing him on house arrest after a year and a half in prison awaiting trial — but then punish Alexei by locking up his innocent brother. Think about that for a moment: Alexei Navalny's only real crimes are organizing anti-Putin protests and running for Moscow mayor on an anti-Putin platform. Putin punished him with a year and a half in jail and now by locking up his innocent brother to intimidate him into silence.
The punishment is also designed to send a signal to the Russian opposition more broadly: this is what happens. You are putting your closest family members at risk by speaking out, so shut up. With opposition protests planned for January 15, and Putin paranoid about Muscovites repeating the 2013 Ukrainian anti-government protests that he earnestly believes were a CIA-backed fascist coup, he believes the stakes are high.
Those of us outside of the country should also take this as a signal: this is what has become of Russia and Russian politics, such as they were. This is an authoritarian government that has graduated beyond punitively imprisoning oligarchs who dare to challenge Putin, and beyond quietly murdering journalists who report on human rights abuses in Chechnya and Dagestan. This is a government that is willing to take a former postal worker hostage for three and a half years just to pressure an opposition political organizer into silence.
For all of our focus on Putin's aggression abroad, and his cartoonish image that makes for such good late night TV jokes, we should not forget this side of Putin's Russia and its consequences for the 144 million citizens who live with the knowledge that speaking out can bring state retribution against their loved ones.