When it comes to modern authoritarian leaders, President Vladimir Putin ranks high for ruthlessness and repression. Yet as the Sunday protests in Moscow and other cities proved, he has failed to crush the spirit and courage of Russian citizens who are willing to risk retribution to resist the excesses of his regime.
The anti-government demonstrations were the largest in more than five years, drawing tens of thousands of people into the streets in scores of cities despite a sweeping ban on unsanctioned rallies. The protests called for the resignation of Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev; their proximate cause was a 50-minute video produced by Aleksei Navalny and other opposition allies and viewed more than 13 million times on social media. The video alleged that Mr. Medvedev had received bribes from prominent oligarchs that enabled him to maintain fancy estates, vineyards and yachts in Russia and overseas. The protests also reflected broader public discontents, including unhappiness with the economy and the government’s suppression of peaceful demonstrations.
Protesters knew the risks. In nearly 20 years as president or prime minister, Mr. Putin has worked to crush any serious political opposition, independent media, freedom of expression and human rights in general. He has also been aggressive on the international stage with his annexation of Crimea and military involvement in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. Over the past five months, some eight high-profile Russians, including five diplomats, have died, some in suspicious circumstances. Mr. Putin has long been accused of killing journalists and other opponents.
Without directly attacking Mr. Putin, whose public approval rating remains high, Mr. Navalny has focused on corruption, which is endemic in Russia, and some believe it could be Mr. Putin’s Achilles’ heel. Nevertheless, the obstacles to unseating Mr. Putin are formidable; indeed, a previous trumped-up conviction may make it difficult for Mr. Navalny to run for office.
Despite President Trump’s perplexing fondness for Mr. Putin, the State Department issued a statement condemning the detention of hundreds of “peaceful protesters,” including Mr. Navalny, and asserting that “detaining peaceful protesters, human rights observers, and journalists is an affront to core democratic values.” The statement was issued by Mark Toner, the acting spokesman, not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which would have had more effect.