In this January 2021 photo, protesters march in support of jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in Berlin, Germany.

In this January 2021 photo, protesters march in support of jailed Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in Berlin, Germany. Omer Messinger/Getty Images

An Exiled Russian Dissident Watches Putin Invade Ukraine

“Russia doesn’t need to invade Ukraine for there to be justification for sanctions today,” said a confidante of Alexey Navalny on a low-profile visit to Washington.

Vladimir Ashurkov dreams of being a Russian politician, one day. So he holds his tongue when asked if he supports U.S. and NATO arms shipments to Ukraine. While the weapons would help Ukrainians resist Vladimir Putin—the man who forced Ashurkov into exile—they would inevitably kill Russians: the soldiers and mercenaries of the invasion force. Even for a Russian dissident who wants nothing more than to rid his country of Putin, Ukraine is complicated. 

Ashurkov is the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the investigative organization that was ejected from Russia in 2019 as a “foreign agent.” It is the main platform of Alexey Navalny, the most prominent of Putin’s political opponents and “probably, the most famous political prisoner worldwide, right now,” Ashurkov said. The organization is meant to help Russia grow beyond Putin and resume its post-Cold War reintegration with the European and global communities. As Putin keeps Navalny behind bars—after surviving an alleged poisoning attempt in 2020—Ashurkov has taken his message to the media, pushing Western leaders to do what they can to erode Putin’s power. 

Unfortunately, he said, the sanctions the Biden administration announced on Tuesday meant very little. 

In a Washington bistro on Tuesday, Ashurkov told a small group of reporters that most Russians do not want war but would welcome a bloodless Ukraine grab; that Russians are unhappy with life under Putin, but stifled by the increasingly oppressive regime; and that Western sanctions so far are mostly disappointing and insufficient. 

Ashurkov reminded his audience that the Russian leader is unconstrained by parliamentary or domestic oversight, has total control over the administration of the state, and commands a powerful military—and that he faces Western governments that are far more politically restrained. Putin is also massively corrupt—and that has helped Navalny’s movement build support across all strata of Russian society.   

“Nobody likes an official stealing from the budget,” he said.

Less clear is what Russians like about Putin’s designs on Ukraine. While some Washington pundits speak of the Ukraine invasion as a with-or-against redline, and Republicans are split over how to feel, Askurkov offers a very Russian assessment of Putin’s plans. 

“If he stops where we’re at now,” with direct Russian control of two breakaway regions, “it’s not going to be a bad situation, objectively” for Putin, he said. “If he makes a move forward, it will be popular domestically that these ‘republics’ will become independent” and possibly folded into Russia. 

“Let’s talk in extremes,” Askurkov said. “If an average Russian is presented with a situation in which Ukraine becomes part of big Russia and there are no consequences, [then] most people would like that. Because in the older generation, people remember the Soviet Union, this big power, and human memory works in mysterious ways.” 

“I think that most people—and it shows in the polls—that nobody wants a big escalation. Nobody wants the coffins to arrive, and people remember Afghanistan. But if it’s like Crimea—–a bloodless, short annexation—–then yeah.” 

And yet, he believes that the Ukraine invasion will ultimately erode Putin’s support among the masses, who have seen their standards of living stagnate along with the GDP over the past eight years, and among the elite who have watched their wealth dissipate.

“People are not happy,” he said. “The wide population is not happy with the situation. The business elite is also not happy because people have seen their fortunes decimated, because of lack of access to international capital markets. We’ve seen the Russian stock market plunging over 20 percent over the last few days. So, yes, I believe a wide-scale invasion will definitely weaken Putin’s regime.”

Ashurkov is focused on convincing Western governments to impose economic penalties. About one year ago, he and Navalny drew up a list of about 35 names, which they handed to President Joe Biden and other U.S. leaders, asking for individual sanctions. 

“We’re hopeful” about bills in Congress that aim to force Biden to act more forcefully. 

But he dismissed most of Tuesday’s announced sanctions. 

“UK’s were very light sanctions: individuals that were already on the U.S. sanctions lists and some banks, which were not major,” he said. “The most powerful sanctions package that we’ve seen today was from the EU, which sanctioned or is about to sanction all members of Russian parliament that voted for the recognition of these separatist republics–and that’s major because that’s about 400 people, many of them business people who went into politics with assets in Europe, who like to send their children to schools in Britain, who like to vacation in Zurich.”

Ashurkov added that Putin and his regime already deserve what punishment the West can levy for his attempts to disrupt the world order through money, cyber attacks, invasions, and political assassinations.

“Russia doesn’t need to invade Ukraine for there to be justification for sanctions today,” he said.  

And yet for all his focus on sanctions, Ashurkov acknowledges that even the harshest measures can do only so much.

“His behavior has become more and more assertive, and he is able to do this because within Russia he has all of the levers of administrative power. He doesn’t answer to any oversight, judiciary system, parliament. And his crackdown on dissent, the recent events over the past year and a half, starting with the poisoning of Navalny, I think they go hand in hand in his increased aggressiveness in foreign policy,”  he said.

“I would like to tell you that there is a silver bullet; that there is a list of measures the West could undertake and Russia would stop its trend toward oppression internally and aggression externally,” he said, “but there is no such silver bullet.” 

Perhaps he or other anti-corruption groups can eventually get Putin’s financial supporters and leeches tried for crimes inside Russia, but in the meantime the West can keep its nose clean and try to “stop the flow of dirty money” into Western banks and coffers.

Ashurkov said that as a potential Russian politician, he doesn’t hesitate to reject Putin’s claims on Ukraine and accusations of NATO aggression. 

“Potentially, of course, I believe that Russia is part of Europe. And it would be only, maybe, a few years before Russia resumes its path toward Europe. Not necessarily the European institutions, as in European Union and NATO, but European values of representative political system, rule of law, free mass media. And if Russia embarks on this path, then I don’t think NATO is a threat, and we can even entertain the possibility of Russia joining NATO.”  

In the meantime, Ashurkov said, he is scheduled to brief Biden administration officials while in Washington. 

“Fundamentally, the interests of our people are aligned.”