With the death of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny days ahead of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this week, leading Russian exile voices say his example must help galvanize opposition to President Vladimir Putin. 

It should start with a renewed effort against his war in Ukraine, says the economist Sergei Guriev, provost of Sciences Po Paris University. “Putin bets everything he has on victory in Ukraine,” he said. “If Ukraine wins this war—and that depends to a great extent on Ukraine’s allies—Putin will be much weaker.” 

He was speaking during a panel discussion in Washington DC about scenarios for Russia’s future, the fourth in a series on Russian exiles hosted by the Institute of Current World Affairs, together with American Purpose and the US Institute of Peace. 

Guriev described Putin’s “personalistic regime” in which all decisions depend on him, his rapport with a segment of Russian society and the narrative that he brought stability and prosperity to Russia in the first decade of his rule. “Nobody else around him can base their legitimacy on that,” he said. 

Comparing contemporary Russia to other watershed moments in the country’s history, Mikhail Zygar, a leading independent journalist based in Berlin, believes popular protest on the scale of the 1917 Russian Revolution will not materialize since living standards remain high and most people “still have a lot to lose.” Instead, he predicts a longer process of transformation similar to developments after Stalin’s death, with a small group close to Putin jockeying for power and attempting to form a junta following his political demise.  

Free Russia Foundation President Natalia Arno, a prominent democracy and human rights activist, emphasized the importance of acting now to prepare for the end of Putin’s regime, citing the West’s failure to anticipate changes after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

She advocates helping exiled Russians since “they understand the situation inside Russia: they influence public opinion and understand how to counter propaganda and sanction the regime,” she said. “They are agents of change.” 

Jorgan Andrews, a State Department fellow at the US Institute of Peace, said Navalny’s death demonstrates the Kremlin’s “moral bankruptcy” and fragility, which he likened to a pressure cooker: “In their growing insecurity, they feel the need to close off every little escape valve that lets pressure out of the system.” he said. “And as they do that, the pressure builds and builds. That’s why regimes like this tend to look stable until the lid blows.” 

Andrews—who recently oversaw a major expert project considering the potential for future political change in Russia—outlined three broad possible scenarios: an aggressive regime like Putin’s; a liberalizing regime; and a “chaos bucket” in which power is contested for a period of time. “Don’t be afraid of the chaos bucket,” he said. “Sometimes things need to fall apart in order to build something anew.” 

Moderator Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy, said Russia’s democratic movement must meantime do more following Navalny’s death. “That’s how martyrdom works,” she said. “It’s the most powerful narrative in human history. The people in jail demand from us more on the path of defining Russia’s future.”  

Top photo: From left: Mikhail Zygar, Sergei Guriev, Miriam Lanskoy, Jorgan Andrews and Natalia Arno