No politician: Putin is a gangster

Too many in the West see him as a legitimate political leader, argue about his ideology and look for political logic in his actions. This is a big mistake that breeds new mistakes and helps Putin to deceive his opponents again and again.



March 13, 2024 - 2:49 PM

Yulia Navalnaya, widow of Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny who died on Feb. 16 in a Russian prison, addresses the European Parliament on Feb. 28, 2024. (Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

On Feb. 16, one month before the scheduled “presidential elections” in Russia, my husband, Alexei Navalny, was murdered in prison on Vladimir Putin’s direct order. I never wanted to be a politician, I never wanted to speak from the rostrum or write for international media. But Putin left me no other choice. Therefore, I want to tell you a few important things that Alexei had been trying to say all these years.

To defeat Putin, or at least seriously punish him, one must realize who he is. Unfortunately, too many people in the West still see him as a legitimate political leader, argue about his ideology and look for political logic in his actions. This is a big mistake that breeds new mistakes and helps Putin to deceive his opponents again and again.

Putin is not a politician, he’s a gangster. Alexei Navalny became famous in Russia and hated by Putin precisely because, from the beginning of his fight, he openly described Putin and his allies as gangsters who had seized and used power only for their own enrichment and to fulfill their personal ambitions.

Look at Putin as the leader of a mafia group. You will grasp his brutality, cynicism, penchant for violence, fondness for ostentatious luxury — and his willingness to lie and kill. All his talks about religion, history, culture and politics might mislead Westerners. But in Russia, everyone knows that gangsters have always loved to flaunt large crosses, pose in churches, and present themselves as fighters for higher justice and traditional values, which in their understanding boil down to a professional criminal’s ruthless code of conduct.

Look at Putin as a mafia boss and you will understand how to punish him and hasten his end. Status is very important to criminal leaders — both within their gangs and in the outside world. Putin seized power in Russia, where he can declare himself the legitimate president or even crown himself as heir to the Russian czars. But why do democratic countries continue to recognize his criminal authority as legitimate? Why do fairly elected world leaders put themselves on the same level as a criminal who has for decades falsified elections, killed, imprisoned or forced out of the country all his critics, and now has unleashed a bloody war in Europe by attacking Ukraine?

I’m not promising that refusing to recognize the results of the Russian presidential elections this weekend would lead to the instant collapse of the Putin government. But it would be an important signal to civil society in Russia and the elites still loyal to Putin, as well as to the world, that Russia is ruled not by a president recognized by all, but by someone who is despised and publicly condemned. Only then will those who remain loyal to Putin start to see that the one way to return to normal economic and political life is to get rid of him.

To criminal leaders, money is crucial. Putin is indifferent to the suffering of ordinary people both in Ukraine and in Russia. He doesn’t care about Russia’s economy — as long as there is money enough to sustain the army and the security services and to fill his own pockets and those of his associates. The only thing that truly hurts Putin is loss of income. Though it might be difficult to target him directly at this point, it’s possible to deprive his inner circle, his representatives and decision-makers, of their ill-gotten gains.

Deprive gangsters of their wealth, and they will lose their loyalty to their leader. This is why I call for the maximum expansion and careful enforcement of sanctions against all more or less prominent Putin-allied politicians, so-called businessmen, civil servants and law enforcement officials. By depriving thousands of influential figures of their capital and assets, you lay the groundwork for internal divisions — and ultimately the collapse of the regime.

Extensive support for Ukraine and its army in the fight against Putin’s unjustified aggression has become the natural moral choice for Western countries. A military defeat for Putin in Ukraine should push his government to the brink of collapse. However, there have been cases in history where defeat hasn’t led to a dictator’s fall. Saddam Hussein’s defeat in Kuwait, for instance, did not end his rule; Hussein and his gang terrorized the people of Iraq and neighboring countries for another decade. To ensure that Putin’s rule doesn’t survive another crisis, including those caused by military setbacks in Ukraine, it is essential to support the forces that continue to resist from within Russia.

Do not believe that everyone in Russia supports Putin and his war. Russia is under a harsh dictatorship. The number of political prisoners in Russia is three times higher than it was during the Soviet system’s struggle with dissidents. Human rights are being trampled, and there is no freedom of speech or protest. But even in such difficult conditions, the people of Russia find ways to demonstrate against the repressive regime. Any opportunity to legally express discontent becomes a mass protest. Hundreds of thousands of people stood in line hoping to register candidates expressing antiwar views in the presidential elections.

And my husband’s funeral in Moscow also became a multiday protest. Despite all the authorities’ efforts, thousands of people visited his grave, covering it with flowers. People know that the regime tracks all those who dare participate — and that they might be punished later — but they show up nevertheless, in Moscow and throughout Russia.

My husband’s most recent appeal to Russians was to participate in the “Noon Against Putin” campaign. He asked all Putin’s opponents to come to polling stations at noon on March 17, election day. The goal is not to influence the voting results, which will be falsified anyway, and it is not to support any of Putin’s puppets allowed on the ballot. Alexei wanted this to be a nationwide protest, emphasizing the illegitimacy of Putin’s election and the resistance of Russian civil society.

I call on political leaders of the West to help all Russian citizens who stand up against Putin’s gang. I urge you to finally hear the voice of free Russia and take a principled stand against him — to not recognize the results of the falsified elections, to not recognize Putin as the legitimate president of Russia.

The world must finally realize that Putin is not who he wants to appear to be. He is a usurper, a tyrant, a war criminal — and a murderer.

About the author: Yulia Navalnaya is the widow of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

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