Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been missing for three days following a “a serious health-related incident”, his associates have warned – just as Vladimir Putin launches his presidential re-election campaign.
Allies of the Kremlin critic – who has been sentenced to more than 30 years on what he says are politically motivated charges – had this week stepped up a campaign to undermine popular support for Mr Putin and the war in Ukraine ahead of the March 2024 presidential elections.
Days earlier, Russian prosecutors brought fresh charges against Mr Navalny, in what the 47-year-old said was part of the Kremlin’s desire to “initiate a new criminal case against me every three months”, adding: “I don’t even know whether to describe my latest news as sad, funny or absurd.”
But Mr Navalny failed to show up at scheduled court hearings this week, according to Maria Pevchikh, chair of his Anti-Corruption Foundation, who said he had been “missing for three days now”.
“We have learned that last week he had a serious health-related incident. Navalny’s life is at great risk. He is in complete isolation right now,” Ms Pevchikh said.
His press secretary Kira Yarmysh warned that Mr Navalny’s lawyers had stood all day outside the penal colony east of Moscow where he is detained – but were denied entry – after he collapsed in his cell.
“The fact that we can’t find Alexey is particularly worrying because he fell ill in his cell last week: he got dizzy and laid down on the floor,” said Ms Yarmysh.
“The colony staff came over immediately, lowered the cot, laid Alexey down and gave him an IV. We don’t know what it was, but given the fact that he’s not being fed, is being kept in a punishment cell with no ventilation and the time for walks has been reduced to a minimum, it looks like a hunger faint.
“Since this incident, the lawyers have seen Alexey and he has been relatively well. But now it’s the third day that we don’t know where he’s. Before that, there were at least occasional letters from him, albeit censored ones, but there have been no letters all week.”
Mr Navalny has suffered long-term health issues, having been poisoned with a nerve agent in Siberia in 2020.
Mr Putin, already Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin, used a military awards ceremony on Friday to announce he would seek another six years in power at next year’s election – which he is set to win with little challenge given his vice-like grip on Russia’s political and media institutions.
Nevertheless, Mr Navalny and his associates are hoping to cause difficulties for Mr Putin, with his top strategist and chief of staff Leonid Volkov launching a project called “Navalny’s Campaigning Machine.”
As described by Mr Navalny in June, their plan is to speak to as many Russians by phone and online, and convince them “to turn against the candidates we hate: candidate Putin and candidate ‘War’”.
In late October, the project already had about 170 volunteers who have so far made thousands of phone calls, Mr Volkov told Reuters, and was conducting a survey to figure out the specific grievances and needs of people in order to tailor talking points they would use in future phone calls.
On the eve of Mr Putin’s announcement, the team placed a number of billboards in Moscow, St Petersburg, and other Russian cities that read “Russia” and “Happy New Year,” with links and QR codes leading to a website titled “Russia without Putin”.
The website urges people “to convince at least 10 people to act against Putin” and talks about various ways to campaign.
It came as the Institute for the Study of War said that Mr Putin’s choice of location to launch his re-election bid this week suggests he could make the war in Ukraine more central to his campaign than previously anticipated.
But he has faced rare public criticism from the families of soldiers trapped on the frontline, and the US-based think-tank suggested Mr Putin’s announcement could be a bid to convince voters “that the Russian military writ large supports Putin”.
Furthermore, the Kremlin may have tasked the Russian military with capturing the Donetsk frontine city of Avdiivka – and possibly Kupyansk – ahead of the March elections, contrary to earlier suggestions that Moscow was merely hoping to keep the frontline “frozen” over winter.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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