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Followers of an imprisoned Russian opposition leader speak out about the war


The last major independent news outlet operating in Russia has suspended operations. The editor, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year, said the newspaper was warned it was breaking a newly imposed ban on what the Kremlin calls fake news about the war on Ukraine. To talk about the recent crackdown by the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, I called Vladimir Ashurkov. Ashurkov is executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. That's the organization founded by Putin's main political rival, Alexei Navalny. Just last week, Navalny was sentenced to nine years on fraud charges that were widely seen as baseless. And I started my conversation by asking Ashurkov about Navalny's safety.

VLADIMIR ASHURKOV: Russian security services can conduct assassinations in any part of the world. You know, it's not for nothing that Russian authorities decided to poison Navalny in August of 2020. So of course I'm worried about his health, and I am worried about any foul play that can happen. But Navalny's story is one of miracles. I think he has it in him that he will defy any odds against him in this case just as well.

MARTÍNEZ: What's become of the hopes of Navalny's supporters and Russia's opposition movement in general now?

ASHURKOV: Well, I think last month has changed many things. Few people expected a full-blown invasion that would be seeing people killed in their hundreds, if not thousands, every day. It was just unimaginable. At the same time, we see, by the way the war has been conducted by Russia, that it is really a blunder and miscalculation. I believe it's weakening Putin's regime and brings forward its demise. People in the elite are shocked because they see their lifestyles turned upside down. They have seen their fortunes decimated. And the average Russians - they see how the prices are skyrocketing, how foreign brands are leaving Russia, and there will be a definite spike in unemployment. So once the economic costs of this invasion sink in, the human costs, I think, inevitably, this will result in a political crisis.

MARTÍNEZ: The economic sanctions that have been imposed by the U.S. and their allies - are - is that alone enough to put pressure on Vladimir Putin?

ASHURKOV: I wish there was some silver bullet that Western countries would employ to put an end to Putin's regime and to this war. But unfortunately, barring a full-scale war and military engagement with Russia, there is no such silver bullet. So economic sanctions are a way to inflict pressure, to inflict economic pain, on different strata of Russian society - different industries, on businesspeople - so that they have sort of a motivation to change the situation. But it's not a magic wand that would make Putin stop, you know, within days or weeks.

MARTÍNEZ: And what could the international community do? What role could they play in helping Russia to return to democratic principles and also civil liberties?

ASHURKOV: I wish I had a good answer to that. I think, ultimately, it's a matter for Russians to change this and to put our country on the normal path of development. It will be a difficult road. It has been made much more difficult by this senseless war that started a bit - over a month ago. But I think whatever we see now in Russia, it's just not sustainable. It may seem stable, but it's really fragile. And the corruption is affecting all aspects of society, economy, the military.

MARTÍNEZ: President Biden, over the weekend in Warsaw, said something in a speech.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power.

MARTÍNEZ: For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power - talking about Vladimir Putin. Could this, in fact, maybe benefited Putin, strengthening his narrative as a Russian leader trying to fend off Western interference?

ASHURKOV: Leaders and politicians in the West - they cannot be as sly, lying as people in countries like Russia, in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. So it's naturally that Biden would speak or would try to speak something that he believes in in terms of Russia. Now, Biden - his office may have retracted this statement a little bit, but I think we need to look through the nuances of rhetoric to the true situation and true strategy that may work.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an organization founded by Alexei Navalny. Vladimir, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ASHURKOV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.