Vladimir Putin is learning that embarrassing leaks are a two-way street.
Infighting among Putin’s inner circle has led to a series of disclosures over the past few months that have shined a harsh light on the private dealings of the Kremlin court — much as Hillary Clinton has endured the airing of thousands of e-mails as a result of what the U.S. calls Russian hacking of her campaign.
As the Kremlin gears up for Putin’s last re-election bid in 18 months, anti-graft crusader Alexei Navalny has emerged as the conduit of choice for rival factions to scoop dirt on each other as they jostle to retain their fiefdoms. While Putin has largely stayed above the fray, anonymous tips and research by Navalny’s staff of 30 have led to a string of revelations about the extravagance of some of the Russian leader’s closest allies, including a new luxury home for his premier, army contracts for his personal chef and private-jet travel for the show dogs of a top official.
Navalny’s critics say he’s just a pawn in a bigger game, but the 40-year-old lawyer says it doesn’t matter where leaks come from as long as they expose officialdom — and the more strife sown along the way, the better.
“They’re starting to devour one another,” Navalny said at his foundation’s office in Moscow, which is paid for through public donations.
The latest bout of infighting started in the summer over the largest asset sale of the year — a controlling stake in Bashneft, a crude producer with more than $10 billion in annual sales. Igor Sechin, who runs state oil champion Rosneft and has worked with Putin since the 1990s, clinched the acquisition this month, but only after a bitter feud with premier Dmitry Medvedev and first deputy premier Igor Shuvalov, both of whom wanted Rosneft excluded from the sale.
As the debate intensified in July, Navalny published investigations on his website revealing that Shuvalov had acquired 10 adjoining apartments in a coveted Moscow skyscraper and spent millions to shuttle his dogs around Europe in a private jet. Shuvalov’s wife said the corgis — Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite breed –- participate in shows abroad “to defend Russia’s honor.”
Those disclosures were followed by newspaper reports detailing the use of a luxury yacht by Sechin’s wife and the Rosneft chief’s construction of an estimated $60 million villa in an exclusive area near Moscow.
Sechin won an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit over the property story, but by then Navalny had revealed that Medvedev was building a luxury home of his own with funds from a billionaire buddy’s charity. The premier’s spokeswoman, Natalya Timakova, said the estate in question is owned by the state.
Even when the scoops aren’t his own, Navalny serves as an amplifier by tweeting about them to his 1.68 million Twitter followers.
“This is what Navalny does — he collects trash,” said Mikhail Leontyev, a spokesman for Rosneft and Sechin. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin has “no opinion” about Navalny, while a spokesman for Shuvalov, the first deputy prime minister, declined to comment.
‘State of Conflict’
For Gleb Pavlovsky, an adviser to Putin during his first decade in power, all of this muckraking just shows that the state’s campaign against corruption is little more than a diversion from the main event — the fight for survival among rival groups, one in which Navalny is considered useful.
“Everyone in this arena is in a state of conflict,’’ Pavlovsky said.
Since 2011, when Navalny tried to parlay his popularity as a litigious stockholder in state-run giants like Gazprom and Transneft into a political career, he’s been detained numerous times, held for a year under house arrest and been convicted of fraud twice. He says the charges were trumped up to bar him from running for office, like he did 2013, when he nearly forced a run-off in the Moscow mayor’s race against Putin’s handpicked incumbent.
Navalny said suspended sentences spared him from jail, but his brother, who was also convicted of fraud, is serving two-years “like a hostage.”
Though hailed by fans at home as a Russian Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who’s bedeviling Clinton’s campaign, Navalny said that he has no ties to the anti-secrecy group and that his fund’s work differs in a fundamental way — it relies on open sources and citizen researchers, not on hacked data.
He also rejects domestic critics who accuse him of working on behalf of U.S. interests, as Transneft CEO Nikolay Tokarev did in 2011, after Navalny completed a fellowship at Yale University and then helped lure tens of thousands onto Moscow’s streets for the biggest anti-Putin protests ever.
As for the U.S. claims of Russian collusion with Wikileaks, which the Kremlin denies, the activist said they may be right.
A few months ago, such an accusation seemed like “an entirely unfounded conspiracy,” Navalny said. “But now, given how apparently synchronized Wikileaks is with the false propaganda of Russian media like RT and Sputnik, there are reasons to assume that such cooperation is likely.”
Vice President Joe Biden said Oct. 15 the Obama administration will respond to Russian hacking “at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact.”
Such a threat raises the possibility that the U.S. might have secret details of financial dealings by Putin’s inner circle that could be more politically damaging than anything Navalny has unearthed, according to Vladimir Rimsky, a corruption expert at the Indem research group in Moscow.
“It could be a disaster if the U.S. gets a hold of something like that,” he said.
For now, Navalny said he’s happy to continue being a thorn in Putin’s side.
Last week, he published a report on a taboo subject for Russian media — the president’s family, specifically the flow of millions of dollars from state companies into a foundation run by Putin’s youngest daughter, Katerina Tikhonova. Reports like that may not show wrongdoing, but they’re embarrassing for a privileged class that’s used to operating in the shadows, according to Rimsky.
“Rule No. 1 isn’t to come clean, it’s to avoid getting caught,’’ he said. “Everyone would like Navalny to shut up.”