MOSCOW — It wasn’t the slick video you would expect from a candidate running for president — the suit was oversized, the camera work uneasy, and the IKEA-framed family pictures too contrived — but its appearance in mid-December was a victory in itself. To stay under the radar of the Russian security services, locations had to be booked at the last minute, and the video itself was edited from hotel rooms. It was a remarkable coup. From a position of weakness, Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s most vocal critic, had managed to fire the starting pistol in Russia’s 2018 presidential campaign and present himself for a vacancy that no one, least of all Vladimir Putin, had advertised.

But while Navalny kicked off the long race toward the March 2018 elections, it’s unlikely he will ever be allowed a head-to-head run against Putin. Forces are already moving against him. A Moscow technology firm has closed the campaign’s crowd-funding account, apparently under pressure from state regulators. Top Kremlin figures have said they do not even consider his candidacy to be valid, citing disputed criminal convictions, which, under Russian law, would prevent him from running. Although the European Court of Human Rights has rendered a previous fraud verdict against Navalny as unlawful, that trial quickly reopened following the announcement of his candidacy. A new verdict is expected on Wednesday, and will likely settle the matter once and for all.

“I understand things won’t be fair,” Navalny told Foreign Policy in an interview in early January at his office, tucked away on the top floor of a business center in southeast Moscow. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, the onetime lawyer, anti-corruption activist, and opposition politician seemed keen to present a relaxed demeanor. “In the course of my political career, I’ve always had to deal with bogus criminal cases. It’s the Kremlin’s preferred method,” he says.

But given the clear authoritarian slide in Russia that has accelerated since 2011, his latest gambit could be a kamikaze moment — a final stand, perhaps, of a man out of options.

Navalny’s decision to run for the presidency — the first time he has dared to do so — puts him firmly in the crosshairs of the Kremlin. The political outsider has weathered pressure from the authorities and managed to emerge from previous trumped-up legal proceedings relatively intact. But given the clear authoritarian slide in Russia that has accelerated since 2011, his latest gambit could be a kamikaze moment — a final stand, perhaps, of a man out of options.

Despite his troubles, Navalny insists that he is no dissident. “Here I am in a nice office in central Moscow, drinking cappuccino and hiding from nobody,” he quipped. “I don’t understand why I should be frightened. Let them be frightened by me. Why should I give my country over to a mafia group, mediocre gangsters from St. Petersburg who somehow managed to pull the wool over a drunk Yeltsin’s eyes?” Navalny said, referring to how Putin and his inner circle came to power in the late 1990s.

Defiant as ever, the presidential announcement was a matter of standing up for Russia’s constitutional rights, Navalny says, regardless of the consequences: “They want everyone to play by their criminal rules, but I’m not a man to stay quiet, even if surrounded by serious-looking men in black helmets.”

Left: Alexei Navalny takes a selfie during a memorial march marking the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Boris Nemtsov on Feb. 27, 2016. (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images) Right: Police officers arrest Navalny during a protest against Vladimir Putin’s victory in presidential elections on Mar. 5, 2012. (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

A star is born

Navalny’s first challenge to the Kremlin was in December 2011. Then, he emerged as the central figure in an opposition movement born out of disputed parliamentary elections. He cut through the political field with highly memorable slogans such as his damning of the ruling United Russia Party as “the party of crooks and thieves,” which became somewhat of a national catchphrase, thrown around by giggling schoolchildren and pensioners alike. But it was with his audacious decision to lead his followers on a march to the Kremlin, on the night following the Dec. 4, 2011, elections, that he made his first claim to leadership.

Ultimately, the opposition candidate proved unable to capitalize on the moment. As the protest movement began to wane over the first half of 2012, so too did his star. With the newly “returned” Putin at the helm, the Kremlin regrouped, clamped down, and found various, effective ways of dealing with its most problematic foe.

This marked the start of Navalny’s incessant legal problems. The cases ranged from the far-fetched to the bizarre. He was accused of stealing a poster, having an extremist blog, and acquiring his lawyer credentials illegally. One of his companies had supposedly stolen assets from a liberal opposition party; he had swindled the director of Kirovles, a timber company in the small city of Kirov. This is the case that most likely will be used to derail Navalny in court before the 2018 presidential contest.

The endless stream of legal proceedings has kept Navalny busy — which, of course, is the point. But at the time it also seemed inevitable he would be sent to jail. Indeed, in the first run of the Kirovles case in July 2013, a regional judge sensationally sentenced him to five years of hard labor.

That would probably have been the end of Navalny’s story, were it not for something rather unusual in modern Russia. Unsanctioned and largely uncoordinated, up to 30,000 Muscovites risked arrest and took to the streets to protest the ruling. Police, who had expected merely a few dozen faithful, were overwhelmed, and the Kremlin was forced to backtrack. An appeal was granted, and the following day, Navalny was on a train back from Kirov to Moscow.

“The decision to release me came from above. When they saw the numbers that turned out, they must have figured that we could be back to the situation of 2011-2012, and then they panicked,” Navalny says.

In the summer of 2013, he launched a bid to be mayor of the Russian capital, squaring off against Putin appointee and loyalist Sergei Sobyanin. Eventually, the Kremlin allowed Navalny to run, calculating that he would barely register with voters in controlled local elections. Vycheslav Volodin, the man charged with overseeing domestic politics in the wake of the protest movement, was bullish at the time. “He said that when the internet hero Navalny met with reality, he could expect no more than 6 or 7 percent of the vote,” Navalny recalls.

Navalny proved Volodin wrong. Thousands of volunteers were signed up, Obama-style, to take the message to the people; the power of the internet was harnessed to the full; and Navalny worked himself into the ground, attending hundreds of events. According to official — but disputed — results, Navalny won 27 percent of the vote and nearly forced a runoff. From a cold start without significant mass media coverage, it was a remarkable achievement. Navalny says that the ballots were deliberately miscounted to deny a second round of voting, and had the election gone to a runoff, he believes he would have won.

Riot police cordon off Triumfalnaya Square in central Moscow on Dec. 6, 2011 during a protest against Vladimir Putin’s planned return as president. (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

The crackdown widens

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one to think so. Soon after his strong showing in the mayoral election, the opposition leader was placed under house arrest and forbidden from communicating with the media. A little more than a year later, he faced another confused and contradictory court case, in which he was accused of defrauding a subsidiary of the cosmetics company Yves Rocher. Only this time, Navalny’s younger brother, Oleg, was co-defendant in the trial. In a Shakespearean flourish, authorities made Oleg hostage to Navalny’s fortune by imposing a custodial sentence on the younger brother alone and freeing Alexei.

“This was unprecedented stuff, even by Putin’s standards,” says fellow opposition politician Ilya Yashin, a onetime colleague of Navalny in the centrist Yabloko Party. While opposition figures have been targeted in underhanded ways, their families have generally been off limits. When the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from prison, for example, he famously thanked Putin for not touching his family. With Navalny, however, the authorities have upped the stakes. “There’s no fair play here. Navalny’s brother is now behind bars, his parents’ businesses and apartments are being searched. He’s being followed, his wife is being followed, and security officials even follow his children,” Yashin says. “It’s the kind of pressure not everyone can cope with.”

Navalny would not be the first opposition leader to be forced into a compromise with the Kremlin, nor would he be the first to leave the country. But his response thus far has been alien to normal Russian sensibilities. He has declared, at least publicly, that he will not follow what he considers criminal, unjust laws or “understandings” with the authorities. Shortly after the court convicted his brother, he tore off his home-arrest tag and set off for a meet-and-greet on the Moscow metro. His declaration for the presidency sets a similar challenge to accepted norms. On the eve of sentencing, he opened a new campaign headquarters in Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg.

Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at a rally in Moscow during the presidential campaign on Feb. 23, 2012. (Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

A useful idiot?

Navalny’s resilience has led some within the opposition to question whether he is not quite what he seems. Conspiracies swirl as to whether his opposition is somehow a bit too useful for the Kremlin. Few, after all, have managed to criticize those at the very top and survived to drink cappuccino. Sergei Magnitsky, a fellow lawyer who raised corruption concerns, is dead. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, the opposition’s only other charismatic leader, was killed within sight of the Kremlin — quite possibly in an act of independent entrepreneurship by a group looking to impress Putin. On Feb. 2, Nemtsov’s ally, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was hospitalized following organ failure and rumored poisoning. In Russia’s anarchic system of outsourced state harassment, the physical dangers facing those who refuse to play by the political rules are arguably as acute as they have been since the death of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1953.

Navalny rejects the line that he is in cahoots with the government — his brother is in prison, after all. “The Kremlin makes its decisions based on what it can and can’t do at any given time,” he says. “Maybe I was lucky in 2009-2010, when I wasn’t too well known. Then, it was difficult to send me to jail. It’s a different paradigm now. We’re at war. We’re shooting down passenger jets.”

Political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky — a onetime Soviet dissident who famously chose a path of collaboration with the authorities, later becoming a senior Kremlin advisor — suggests that Navalny is, in fact, playing a controlled game.

“On an intuitive level, he realizes Putin is watching him, and in a way he doesn’t watch other opposition leaders like [Garry] Kasparov, [Mikhail] Kasyanov, or even Khodorkovsky,” Pavlovsky says. “There’s a corridor of what is and isn’t allowed, and, by and large, Navalny is observing the rules.”

Navalny’s move to enter the 2018 contest, however, has tested the limits.

Navalny’s move to enter the 2018 contest, however, has tested the limits. According to his legal team, the judge was initially told to deliver a custodial sentence — though it now seems more likely that the sentence will be a repeat of the five-year probational sentence brought against him in 2013. The Kremlin certainly has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, too. Whether or not he is sent to prison, there is little chance Navalny will be allowed to take his big-city electoral appeal beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. In a time of economic belt-tightening, the Kremlin is in no mood to experiment with liberalizing its system and giving an opportunity for Navalny’s anti-corruption populism to catch on across Russia.

“You can’t even compare today’s Russia with the Russia of 2011. The comparisons that work are Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe,” Navalny says. “And, believe me, our express train is already speeding along rapidly down that route.”

Top image credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images