It is February 24th, the anniversary of the outbreak of war. Leonid Volkov is sitting in a café in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and is surprised that he has time for an interview today. There were fewer appointment requests than expected on this dubious anniversary. Volkov is busy anyway - no wonder, as he is still the closest collaborator of the imprisoned Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his anti-corruption foundation. In between, he has to interrupt the conversation for phone calls and send e-mails from time to time. In his mailbox, he shows his correspondence with Navalny, which has been censored and delivered from the penal colony. As his chief of staff, Volkov, who studied computer science, conducted election campaign after election campaign, until Navalny was poisoned and imprisoned and he himself had to flee into exile in Lithuania.
WORLD: In a recent interview, you accused the Russian judiciary of deliberately putting a prisoner infected with the flu in his cell, after which he fell ill. Because he is in poor physical condition due to the prison conditions, an illness like the flu is extremely dangerous for someone like Navalny. Is the regime actively trying to assassinate its most prominent prisoner?
Leonid Volkov: No, no. Putin is trying to make the conditions of the punishment so intolerable that Navalny doesn't open his mouth if possible. It is not allowed to hit him physically. Unfortunately, this is otherwise completely normal in Russian prisons. However, this is not applied to Navalny.
WORLD: Because it would look bad?
Volkov: Probably because it would look bad, yes. At the same time, there is obviously an order from Moscow: Navalny should suffer. He is tortured psychologically, which also weakens him physically. And this in turn puts him at greater risk to his health.
WORLD: Why shouldn't Russia want to kill Navalny if that had already been tried before? In August 2020 he was poisoned in a Siberian hotel and probably only survived a subsequent scheduled flight because the pilot landed unscheduled and he was allowed to go to Berlin, where he slowly regained his strength in the Charité.
Volkov: Back then the order wasn't simply to shoot him in the head. Rather, he should be poisoned in such a way that no trace of it remains. The idea was: The plane lands, there is a body and the doctor says: Okay, that was a heart attack - that's it. That doesn't mean that Putin won't change his mind tomorrow and still want to have him assassinated. But I wouldn't think that's very likely. Putin is quite rational about these things, he has a valuable asset in Navalny.
WORLD: How long will Navalny be in custody?
Volkov: He will stay there as long as Putin is in power.
WORLD: You don't see a chance that he - like the former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky - will still be released after many years?
Volkov: Putin will definitely not release him. When Putin is gone, Alexei Navalny will come back. As long as Putin is there, it doesn't matter whether the sentence is now ten years, eight years or whatever. There will always be new convictions. It is a de facto life sentence.
WORLD: Are you optimistic that Putin will disappear? As part of the Russian opposition, you have a feeling for Russian society: in your book on political developments in Russia under Putin, you write that the tipping points at which a regime falters can hardly be predicted - they often appear to have emerged from the nothing up.
Volkov: That's right - it's really very difficult to estimate a point in time. The country's isolation from the west means that you can hardly see what's cooking in that pot from the outside. However, an explosion may occur.
WORLD: Can you use your surveys and contacts to assess whether things are already brewing? Or would the repression have to increase significantly, for example through mobilization or a blocking of the remaining western online services such as YouTube?
Volkov: So blocking YouTube would mean a risk. So far, people have not dared to do so because YouTube is a place where many Russians spend their free time, for example watching films with their children, and for which there is no Russian alternative platform. Exactly this alternative is currently being worked on. Popular artists will move there. After that, we believe, YouTube will also be blocked.
A complete mobilization would certainly be an extremely large risk factor. That's why I also believe that such a step is out of the question. This first wave, the partial mobilization, was already a logistical catastrophe. In addition, the army lacks equipment and, in particular, enough non-commissioned officers. They invaded Ukraine in February last year and are now mostly dead.
WORLD: If we are already talking about misconceptions that Putin made - why is it that he misjudges so often? Is he simply misinformed, as is often said?
Volkov: That's because of his miserable managerial qualities. It's that simple. You can't organize a huge country like a one-man show in the 21st century. That does not work. As an individual, you cannot be sufficiently informed to make all political and military decisions yourself in a high-quality manner. It's all incredible, because Putin tries anyway, and in the end a "Putinland" really comes out of it (the title of Volkov's book, ed.). Okay, in democratic societies we often see a poor quality of political decisions. But there are different opinions discussed around it. I can already see it in our foundation: we have 140 employees and quite complicated decision-making processes, quite a lot of bureaucracy. It's not always fun, but the alternatives are far worse - there's no more efficient way to manage an organization with 140 employees. Putin, on the other hand, is trying to run an entire country of 140 million people in this way. That can't work.
WORLD: Are those who inform Putin also badly informed? Or do they only selectively pass on developments, as is often suggested?
Volkov: Those involved in the Putin system have learned over the years what the big boss likes and doesn't like. What is good news for him and what is bad. We've come across those red folders a couple of times, those briefings he gets every morning. And yes, okay, reading this makes you want to invade Ukraine tomorrow as well. In one, for the first 15 pages, all sorts of things about the alleged crimes of Ukrainian Nazis. That was before the war. The next 15 pages dealt with outdated geopolitical nonsense. Putin is not an internet user. He firmly believes that only the security services have the relevant information and trusts his small circle. This is obviously quite naive.
WORLD: You like to describe the Putin system as a kleptocracy, which is primarily about raking in money. Doesn't that fall short in view of the imperialist and sometimes fascist tendencies that his regime has developed?
Volkov: I believe and am trying to prove that the cause of this crisis is corruption. This enormous kleptocracy. Putin was just a normal gangster, a standard Russian bandit. His biography in the 90s, when he lived in St. Petersburg, has been thoroughly researched. You know how he worked with the mafia. Then he became president, basically by accident. And his mentality has remained the same throughout. He finds unlimited opportunities to enrich himself and his friends. In the early years of his reign, things went well because oil and gas prices rose. But even high gas prices cannot make up for it if you let two-thirds of the income disappear. His popularity fell accordingly. Unfortunately, he has discovered an effective medicine to reverse this effect - in 2014 the annexation of Crimea pushed his ratings up again. From this he learned that there is a means that is always available that can be used to resolve domestic political problems.
WORLD: So imperialism is a means to an end and not so much an ideology?
Volkov: Well, then it gets complicated. At some point Putin started reading a lot of history books. Since around 2014 one can find a lot of quotations from fascist Russian philosophers in his speeches. He has read too much of it, probably also to be able to explain his actions to himself. Nobody wants to think to themselves: Okay, I'm just a thief. So he builds a kind of historical mission around it. But it all started with corruption. All this imperialist stuff is ultimately just propaganda nonsense. Helpful to wrap up the populace. Chewing gum for the chavs.
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WORLD: What should Germany's role be in supporting a post-Putin Russia that wants to become more democratic, less dictatorial and autocratic?
Volkov: I don't think Germany can play a special role. After Putin there will be a struggle between conservatives and pro-European forces. If it wants to help, Germany, as the leading country in Europe, should set a good example. Very easily. And on the other hand very difficult. Because it has been seen many times in recent years that even Western politicians do not always stick to the values they actually stand for after elections. That is a big problem. In Russia, this was turned into a narrative with which many minds were poisoned – it is then said that there are no good politicians anywhere. It's going to be incredibly difficult to straighten out.
WORLD: Are you well enough positioned for this? Putin's regime has made every effort to crush members of the opposition. Many are dead, imprisoned or, like you, have been in exile for years.
Volkov: We are well positioned and capable. We ran successful election campaigns in Russia, in this toxic environment, under tremendous pressure. And we have results - we won in ordinary Russian cities. We have experience we can rely on.
WORLD: Not everyone would look forward to a Russia under Navalny – your movement is repeatedly accused of nationalism.
Volkov: These accusations only arise when one wants to describe Russian politics – politics in an authoritarian state – with a coordinate system that defines political events in a state like Germany. And, of course, when quotes are taken out of context. Our movement is a liberal-democratic, pro-European movement.
WORLD: Which coordinate system would fit the statements in question? Navalny said sentences like: "Everything that bothers us must be removed carefully, but undeterred by deportation."
Volkov: You look at these statements as if they were made by a European politician in a European election campaign in 2023. But that's just not true. To explain, I have to go back a bit. 2007 was perhaps the best year in Russia's history - we had eight, nine years of growth behind us and the global economic crisis of 2008 had not yet broken out. At the same time, we had a major demographic problem – the country was aging rapidly even then, the birth rate was around 1.3 children per woman. It created a kind of negative unemployment - there weren't enough workers for that level of growth. Then almost ten million foreign workers came from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, who of course put pressure on the labor market. Which in turn depressed the mood of poorly educated young Russians. This triggered extremist groups, who received weapons and money from (Vladislav) Surkov (former Kremlin strategist, ed.) and murdered several guest workers. They were then ordered to also kill political opponents of the regime - and could no longer say no because blood was already on their hands. Among other things, an anti-fascist lawyer and a judge died.
With his statements, Navalny tried to reach these nationalist movements in order to then explain to them that the enemy is in the Kremlin. Ultimately, the message should be: If you don't like migration, you shouldn't kill migrants, but fight against corruption. That was the political idea behind his statements - which, it has to be said, was not successful.
WORLD: We are sitting here in Vilnius in a public place. Kremlin opponents have fallen out of windows, been poisoned or shot in the past, even outside of Russia. Do you feel safe sitting here?
Volkov: I feel okay. The Belarusian border is only 30 kilometers away. There is no such thing as absolute security, you have to accept certain risks. Is there really all-round effective protection? The answer is no - none that I can afford. Ultimately, I try not to think about it too much, lest I live paralyzed in fear and get on with my work.
I can't always say with certainty whether I'm being watched. There have already been attempts. When Alexei was in Vilnius, he was watched. You could see that, it was pretty obvious. If we see something strange here, we have a telephone contact with the police. In the summer there was such a situation. Our office is down the street not far from this coffee shop. We don't let anyone in there, it's a security measure. We then noticed a man who had been sitting at the same table in a nearby café for five days, watching our entrance. We called the police. She investigated, and the result was: The man was simply the owner of the restaurant (laughs). But at least we knew the process would work.
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