Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Putin Photograph:( AFP )
For a man who has survived it all, Alexei Navalny is becoming too grave a threat
Vladimir Putin became Russia's President at the turn of the millennium and he had two tasks before him: handling the war in Chechnya and the Boris Yeltsin-era oligarchs; he weathered both.
In 2002, a Moscow theatre was seized by Chechen militants who took 912 people hostage, of which 129 died. Putin handled the siege ruthlessly and earned a 'strongman' reputation with an approval rating of 83 per cent.
In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and Russia was slapped with sanctions. However, four years later, Putin appeared to mock the sanctions when he managed to get the world to Russi for the football world cup.
For a man who has survived it all, Alexei Navalny is becoming too grave a threat.
Vladimir Putin is used to silencing dissent. In 2006, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on Putin's birthday. She had written about corruption in the Russian army. However, Putin denied any involvement.
Now, 15 years on, every critic of Putin has either met the same fate or has been silenced or sidelined in one way or another — be it former federal security service officer Alexander Litvinenko, former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, activist-journalist Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza or Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko.
Alexei Navalny, however, has emerged as an exception after he survived a nerve agent poisoning. He used his recovery time to investigate attacks on journalists.
He exposed corruption in Putin's system, which he detailed in a two-hour documentary. Now, Navalny has kickstarted what Putin fears the most: a Ukraine-style Maidan revolution.
From Moscow to St. Petersburg, protesters have taken to the streets across Russia with demonstrations in at least 100 cities. While Russia has earlier, too, seen anti-Putin protests, something of this scale is unprecedented.
Putin knows the history and he understands the threat such protests come with. He knows that protests eventually toppled the Tsarist rule too.
On paper, Putin's dream of being a president for life is clear, but on the roads of Russia are hurdles abound. Many protesters are calling Putin a thief and most are calling for a Russia without him.
Putin's worst fears have come true because of the 44-year-old Alexei Navalny. He is popular and has support abroad.
Navalny's poisoning made him a household name and his dramatic arrest heightened his profile and made him the face of Russian opposition — a position that was lying vacant for over two decades.
He has done his research and knows how the Kremlin works. In fact, Navalny has outmanoeuvred Putin.
After Navalny was poisoned, he duped Russian agents into spilling the details of the attempted assassination and returned to Russia despite the threats of an arrest. In doing so, Navalny became a hero.
When he was jailed, he told the world that he has no intention of committing suicide. So, Navalny has basically put Putin in a catch 22 situation as letting Navalny walk out of prison comes with a huge cost, but keeping him behind bars is not helping either.
Silencing him inside prison is not even an option. The world is watching what's happening in Russia and the call for "freedom" has reached Berlin.
Europe is calling for Navalny's release and the EU is mulling sanctions.
Navalny has not just challenged Putin's leadership, but also his strongman image. Navalny has been exposing Putin and labelling him as a fragile and corrupt leader. He has forced Putin to clear his name in public. Putin is so threatened by his fiercest critic that Navalny is not even allowed to contest elections.
Three weeks ago, Putin's popularity had slipped to 65 per cent. One can only imagine what the protests have done to that number. The change in leadership outside the home has made matters worse.
The US President Joe Biden is not Donald Trump and his White House is not looking away. It has already asked for the release of Navalny and his supporters.