One man commands a police state. The other is locked up and close to death. Nonetheless, Vladimir Putin fears his prisoner. Alexei Navalny may be physically weak: after most of a month on hunger strike, he was moved to a prison hospital on April 19th, perhaps for force-feeding. Yet he is still Russia’s most effective opposition leader. His jocular, matter-of-fact videos resonate with voters. One, a guided tour of a gaudy palace that Mr Putin denies owning, has been viewed more than 116m times. Mr Navalny has built a movement by mocking the Kremlin’s lies, and challenges Mr Putin’s party at elections. That is why he was poisoned last year, and then jailed on bogus charges. It is why his organisation has been branded “extremist” and is being ruthlessly shut down. It may also explain why Mr Putin, eager to change the subject and fire up patriotic Russian supporters, is once again menacing the neighbours.
He has massed more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, a country he has already partly dismembered by grabbing Crimea and backing pro-Russian secessionists in the Donbas, an eastern region. His propagandists warn of a looming (but imaginary) genocide of Russian-speakers there. More than 200,000 of them have been issued with Russian passports, giving Mr Putin a pretext to intervene if they claim to be in danger. Military analysts doubt that a full-scale invasion is afoot—the troop movements are too blatant for a surprise attack. But Mr Putin’s navy has threatened to block the Kerch strait, cutting off parts of Ukraine from the Black Sea. His goal may be to intimidate its leaders and extract concessions, such as formal autonomy for the Donbas. Or perhaps he wants to provoke a Ukrainian reaction, to furnish an excuse for a war that a Kremlin official said might be “the beginning of the end of Ukraine”. His state-of-the-nation speech on April 21st offered only the vaguest of clues.
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