Chief of staff to imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and co-founder of the Internet Protection Society, Leonid Volkov, addresses the 14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy
Moderator: Let me introduce Leonid, whom we heard at the UN yesterday – we had a small taster event for diplomats at the United Nations which was very powerful and Leonid was one of the speakers. Leonid Volkov is chief of staff to the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, he was campaign manager for Navalny’s Moscow mayoral campaign in 2013 as well as for his bid to get onto the presidential ballot in 2018. He created and led Team Navalny’s network of regional offices in 45 of Russia’s largest cities. Since 2019, Leonid Volkov operates from abroad, which is not surprising given that the Russian regime is currently pursuing him with seven different politically motivated criminal cases. An IT professional by background, Leonid is also the co-founder of the Internet Protection Society, Russia’s leading digital rights NGO.
So Leonid, when we talk about Russia today for so many people in this room and around the world who are watching, there are many questions that people want to know about, but I want to start with, if we can, with Navalny, who’s someone the world also knows about – to remind people he is someone who was poisoned, who went into a coma, almost died, was taken to Germany and managed to survive. He was poisoned by the regime and yet came back to Russia after being poisoned. So really courageous people. We also had Vladimir Kara-Murza, a similar person who lives in Russia, poisoned twice. So Navalny went back to Russia, was then put on a fake trial, and thrown into prison.
Let me begin by asking a little bit about Alexei Navalny. How is he doing? And we know there was another famous fake trial in February, maybe you could tell us a bit about that.
Leonid Volkov: Alexei was just delivered a new sentence, he was awarded with a nine-year sentence in a maximum security prison, which is not a good news definitely, but also not bad news. It doesn’t mean anything frankly because he is President Putin’s personal political prisoner and all these legal formalities don’t really mean a lot.
So we all know that Russia, as well the largest country in the world, is also a very small country. It’s too small for these two men. So it has been Putin versus Navalny for a few years and it has become very clear that only one of them could walk free through the country. Navalny always knew, even when he returned to Russia a year ago, that his sentence will be a life sentence but the question is: for the duration of who’s life?
Well, we believe actually that President Putin, who six weeks ago started a criminal and atrocious war against Ukraine, miscalculated gravely and he shortened his term. He really very much decreased his own chances to die in the Kremlin, to die staying in power – which was always his plan. So now we believe chances are very high that this plan will fail. President Putin has many plans, they don’t have to be taken for granted. President Putin had a plan to kill Alexei Navalny with Novichok and he failed. He had a plan to take over Kyiv in 96 hours, he failed. He had a plan to make Russia one of the world’s top five economies, and he failed also. So pretty much everything he does he doesn’t manage to accomplish because of the very inefficient and corrupt system he has built. So we are quite sure that Putin’s plan to keep Alexei Navalny in prison forever will also fail, and that’s why Alexei remains very brave and strong and his morale is high and his spirit is high.
Alexei also works a lot, he remains the acting head of our organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation. He just recently, actually he used his last speech in the court to announce new plans, the international expansion. Because the Anti-Corruption Foundation was always a Russian organization focused on corruption inside Russia, he now announced that we are launching ACF International. Like the international Anti-Corruption Organization, and he does it, well, right away from prison. We can stay in touch with him, he follows the agenda, he follows the news, so everything is going to be fine.
Moderator: Good well, given that he’s in a penal colony in Russia and subject to a totalitarian dictator, that he can remain optimistic is incredible.
Leonid Volkov: We always say that optimism is a job requirement with our organization. I mean, otherwise you just wouldn’t be able to survive. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to work. There is so much devastating news from Russia, there are so many reasons to get depressed, to feel depressed, so to carry on and to hope for a better future for our poor country, we actually need to remain optimistic and that’s that’s a very important feeling that we try to foster among members of our team.
Moderator: Terrific and speaking about your team, was it your team that recently exposed the step-daughter of Lavrov?
Leonid Volkov: Yes indeed.
Moderator: There was this Twitter thread that I saw about a young woman living a luxury lifestyle, can you tell us about that?
Leonid Volkov: Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was leading the head of “United Russia,” Putin’s party. He was the number one on the party list at the parliamentary elections in September. And it was then in September 2021 when we launched a huge investigation about his wealth and about the ridiculous fact that Foreign Minister Lavrov is still very much respected in the diplomatic corps for some reason.
Moderator: We think he’s a suave, you know a prestigious international actor, that’s the image that one gets.
Leonid Volkov: The person who always lies, thats the only image he has, and the only image he deserves. But the fact that our investigation has revealed is that he is actually owned by oligarch Deripaska, and that’s a very important insight into how Russian corruption works. These oligarchs, they try to distance themselves from the government, they try to pretend they are successful and wealthy businessmen on their own, but there are actually always very intimate ties. And our investigation revealed that once Lavrov flies somewhere, to Geneva to, I don’t know, to Dubai, to New York, wherever, a private jet owned by Deripaska follows the minister’s jet and carries his second family, his mistress and her daughter, his step-daughter.
Moderator: Are you saying that a corrupt dictator might come to Geneva? I can’t believe this.
Leonid Volkov: Lavrov is still very much welcome everywhere and that’s a huge problem. So I mean Deripaska is paying all his bills and so on. It was a very important insight into corruption but it went unnoticed pretty much because we’ve done it in Russian for the Russian audience and it looks like Russian audience is already kind of used to it. But then after this very lengthy and well documented investigation, when we just launched one twitter thread in English on this like in February this blew up and this led actually to the fact that for instance that Lavrov’s step daughter’s assets in London were frozen and so and so on. This educated us a lot about the international impact that we are also able to achieve. And this one, this was one of the motivations to to scale up the Anti-Corruption Foundation to the international level.
Moderator: So in this case the top leadership can feel the sting of sanctions in a very personal and direct way.
Leonid Volkov: Indeed. And by the way yesterday the US announced that they would include Putin’s daughters to the next version of the sanctions list and we welcome it very much. Of course, I’m not sure that Putin’s daughters actually own some properties in the West, albeit Maria, his elder daughter, used to be married to a Dutch citizen for a period of time and she used to live in the Netherlands. They probably don’t have properties that could be seized but it’s a very important symbolic move. It’s a very important symbolic move that means that we are going after Putin personally. We realize how huge his very personal guilt is in the inception of this bloody war.
Also that’s why yesterday we we published another Twitter thread urging the west to sanction Alina Kabaeva, his actual wife, also his mistress, and the mother of his two youngest children, who is not only a personal relation to Putin but she is also the Chairman of the Board of the national media group, which is the largest media in Russia and the largest source of propaganda. Like 60 percent of state-controlled Russian media belong to this national media group where Alina Kabaeva is Chairman of the Board.
It also shows how important propaganda is for Putin’s regime, so that he entrusted the propaganda machine to be run by his most important confidant. We are very sure that she also has to be sanctioned.
Moderator: Right. Coming back to Navalny for a moment I should mention, as you mentioned at the United Nations yesterday, that we had the privilege last year, we were online because of the pandemic, our 13th Geneva Summit was online, but we gave our Courage Award last year to Alexei Navalny, of course he’s in prison so his daughter was able to receive it – her speech went viral on the internet was seen well over a million times. Did that award matter to him at all? He’s in prison, he’s in Russia, there’s an award given online in Geneva by 25 human rights groups, did that make a difference at all? Does it matter?
Leonid Volkov: Yeah as I told you yesterday during the UN opening session it meant a lot for us because kind of it had a very symbolic meaning of anti-corruption agenda, anti-corruption fighters, to be admitted to the human rights family. This is something that we tried to demonstrate actually for many years showcasing the origins and ways of Russian corruption, that corruption always leads to enormous human rights violations, that a corrupt dictator at some point of time realizes that they have no choice but to steal elections, they have no choice but to demolish independent judiciary, they have no choice but to silence independent press, they have no choice but to beat down protesters, and at some point in time, they manage to persuade themselves they have no choice but to start a war just to stay in power.
Because while for a democratic leader the end of their tenure is just a moment to relax and exhale, makes them happy. While Angela Merkel apparently feels very happy after those 16 years, for a corrupt dictator this is an impossible moment because they realize they are risking losing everything with the change of power and then they realize they have to do everything they could to stay in power forever.
Moderator: Speaking about the war I’d like to turn a little bit to the war in Ukraine which has seized the world’s attention for much of the past month and more. For several weeks observers were looking and trying to figure out what does Putin want, what is his goal? And a number of people were saying, as they would on other world leaders who seemed to be screwing up, they would say well, no, he’s playing three-dimensional chess, he’s doing that because you think that’s what he wants, but maybe he just doesn’t want Kyiv he just wants Donbass. What did Putin want? And, well, you already said that he’s failing, could you tell us, what do you think he wanted and how is he failing today?
Leonid Volkov: First of all, this is a very wrong perception that Putin is able to play three-dimensional chess. I’m not sure if he’s able to play two-dimensional. He’s not well educated – his high school diploma is a nightmare – his knowledge of the world, how it goes, is very limited and that’s the problem. So Angela Merkel famously said eight years ago after meeting him after the annexation of Crimea and so on, that he is not in touch with reality. This has been actually a very important quote, a very correct diagnosis. The problem is, though, that the world didn’t act. So it was recognized among world leaders he is not in touch with the reality, he remained on G20, he remained well respected and the world didn’t consider the guy who is detached from the reality and has nuclear weapons to be a major threat to the world.
This was actually quite ridiculous but then this detachment, it continued for the next eight years and especially for the last two years of Covid, where he went into a complete self-isolation, where everyone who wanted to meet him had to undergo 14 days of mandatory complete isolation and so on. This made his inner circle, which always was very narrow, even smaller and of course, made his judgment completely impaired. He doesn’t play three-dimensional chess, he only relies on red folders. There is a daily red folder with printed papers prepared by his secret service, the FSB, telling him the news he likes to read.
In the last 20 years of course the FSB, very well adapted to the style and taste of their boss and they know which kind of news made him happy. So we are very sure we know that for the last two years at least they were just feeding this small and limited man with news about atrocities of Ukraine and Nazis and so on and so on.
Moderator: So he may actually believe some of those things?
Leonid Volkov: And also this fake polling that suggested that like Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine would welcome him with flowers. He miscalculated dramatically, but it’s not because he had a plan and not because he has a plan now, it’s just because he’s not in touch with the reality at all.
Moderator: Why did he launch the war? Do you think he planned to occupy the country, to install a puppet? What do you think he planned and what was his motive?
Leonid Volkov: In 2013 after the Moscow mayoral elections and after the protests Putin’s approval rating started to go down. For the first time of his presidency his approval rating went to 50 something percent, since the country was divided, many people were tired. Then he managed to get a lucky ticket with the annexation of Crimea after the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine. It wasn’t their plan, it was just an opportunity and they acted in a very opportunistic way. Then suddenly his approval rating skyrocketed to 80 something percent.
Moderator: People rallied around the flag.
Leonid Volkov: Because he managed to sell it using his propaganda machine that it was so very voluntarily, that people applauded, no blood has shed, no shots were fired, and so on.
Moderator: A brilliant victory.
It was not true but he managed to sell it as a very brilliant victory at no cost and his approval rating skyrocketed. He experienced love. Love is a drug and it can cause drug addiction. To be a dictator with 85 percent approval rating is probably the best job in the world. Whatever you do people love you. You pose half naked on a horse people like it. You fly with the birds – what he did once – people like it. Whatever you do, people are ready to build your status.
And then this love started to fade away and by the end of 2021, he found himself with his approval rating of 40 something percent. It’s a very different situation. So, now the country is once again divided, things that you did five years ago and people applauded them, now people start to laugh about the same things. It’s an uncomfortable situation he wanted to return to this love, he was really dependent, he was very dependent on this, he wanted to be loved again and every dictator made this mistake at some point in time: a small victorious war was something that he expected would yield him this love again. And he had his red folders that should that suggested that indeed like, Kharkiv and Odessa would fall immediately and his army will be in a Kyiv in 72 to 96 hours. Which is by the way also was the Pentagon’s projections.
So he managed to persuade himself that it will be also a huge victory at no cost and that it will return him this love which is very important for him. He will face a re-election soon and the situation in the country was very unstable. So many dictators do this and many people recall the Falklands War of the Argentine junta and so on. It’s it’s unfortunately very sad but a repeating pattern.
Moderator: Let me come back if I may to the West. You said how the West didn’t seem to really understand Putin. Remember 20 years ago President George W. Bush said he looked into his soul and he saw good things, and then Hillary Clinton had the reset. It seems like the West got Putin wrong. How did we in the west get Putin so wrong, and then I want to ask you what should we do going forward?
Leonid Volkov: There is one very important thing that Putin realized at some point in time. That he has a very important advantage when he compares himself to western leaders. By the way, I believe this is also the way the Chinese Communist Party sees the picture. They will change and he’ll remain. So he has to be patient. If he doesn’t manage to build good relations with that one, he’ll just have to wait, he has infinite time while they have very limited terms. And we’ve seen it with every American president since Bill Clinton, they used to have a honeymoon period with Putin for the first six months or 12 months trying to push the reset button and so on. Biden inviting him to Geneva in June this year and so on. Because, well, every one of them thinks “okay my predecessors were not successful but maybe I manage to do it, I manage to find my way, to deal with him.” And so on.
Second they always have to face some elections, that’s the problem. I mean democracies are bad the only problem is that other systems are worse. But that’s built by design so every European leader has some elections upcoming, if not federal, then regional, if not regional then the European Parliament. They have to bring up good news. The current, unfortunately, well the current political era is not able to to produce Winston Churchills who would promise only blood, sweat, and tears. Putin made very brilliant use of this. For years, billions of dollars stolen from Russian taxpayers were flowing into the West, corrupting and eroding political systems but Putin realized perfectly that no leader would dare to say I am now evicting Russian corrupt money from my country. This will cost something, this will cost like 0.5 percent of GDP for our country because some luxury properties will not be sold and some yachts will not be built.
Moderator: I’m gonna have to stop you just for a second, we have one minute left and maybe you could tell the audience and the world what should the West be doing now on Ukraine let’s say.
Leonid Volkov: To put morale over money. to put principles over realpolitik. I mean now finally the west is doing it but too late and at what cost? I mean who will return the lives that were taken from the Ukrainian people? That’s the problem now, we have been talking about this for eight years and what is happening now is of course too little too late. If the sanctions against Putin’s friends would be pre-emptive, if the principle base for politics would be employed against him after the annexation of Crimea, after the downing of Boeing MH17, the world would be different. But now the most important thing that after this war the world should not return back to its previous situation where President Putin or the dictators like him are considered legitimate, and are being appeased.
Moderator: Thank you Leonid, thank you for coming here and please send our best wishes to Alexei Navalny. We stand with him.
14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, April 5, 2022