Putin has his opponents where he wants them, but is his plan working?

Alexei Navalny, Russia's top opposition leader and Putin's fiercest foe died in February.

There’s not much doubt about Vladimir Putin’s strategy: to cut the head off Russia’s opposition either through death or imprisonment, drive the rest into exile, and render all competing voices impotent and irrelevant.

After several years of ever more brutal authoritarianism, he has his opponents where he wants them, but is his plan working?

Alexei Navalny, Putin’s political nemesis, always believed that you could not aspire to rule Russia from abroad, which is why – despite surviving one assassination attempt – he went back, only to disappear and then die in Putin’s new gulag.

His friends and allies had little choice but to flee, and many are now based in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Relatives and friends pay their last respects at the coffin of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Credit: On Assignment

Without Navalny, they lack a leader, but they do not lack a voice. Their weapon is YouTube, making videos, providing an alternative source of news, and telling Russians things about their leaders that they will never hear on Kremlin-controlled TV channels.

Their reach is enormous. Navalny’s channel (which has continued its work as vigorously as ever since his death) claims 30 million unique viewers in Russia.

Vladimir Milov, an ally of Navalny who was forced into exile soon after his friend was jailed for the last time, has five million viewers despite being much less well known.

Key Navalny ally, Vladimir Milov spoke to James Mates about being forced into exile. Credit: On Assignment

And there is not much Putin can do about them, because YouTube plays such an important part in the lives of everyday Russians.

For many, it is the primary source of TV entertainment, watched by one in three Russians every day, and two in three at least once a month. To ban it would be to court the sort of unpopularity Putin has always tried to avoid.

But is it all talk? Will the opposition to this present dictatorship be as ineffective as the White Russian opposition to the Bolsheviks was back in the 1920s?

That, of course, will depend on events, two events in particular.

The outcome of the war in Ukraine, and Putin’s lifespan.

Either defeat or withdrawal from Ukraine, or Putin’s death are likely to create an opportunity in Moscow, and the opposition is determined to be in the mix as one of the alternatives should either of these events come to pass.

Leonid Volkov, arguably Russia’s most prominent exile post-Navalny, assured me that Russia is as capable of being a functioning democracy as any other European country.

It just needs the opportunity.

They may be in exile right now, but if circumstances allow they are poised just across the border and ready to provide Russians with a democratic opportunity, if and when circumstances allow.

Watch On Assignment on ITV and ITVX at 10.45pm on Tuesday.

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