How best to explain the Kremlin’s spectacular mishandling of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny?

At first glance, Navalny’s arrest at a Moscow airport on Sunday looks like an irrational and self-injurious overreaction. The Kremlin’s move all but guarantees a new wave of protests inside Russia. For years, the Kremlin had tried to treat Navalny like a run-of-the-mill nuisance. Now it has transformed him into something of a folk hero for a growing number of Russians.

Yet beneath the surface, the failed assassination and the dramatic arrest of an endlessly combative yet media-savvy opponent of the Putin regime reveal a different storyline. For quite some time, it has been commonplace to talk about Kremlin decisionmaking as though Russia’s leadership were a monolith. It isn’t. Nor is the Russian ruling elite all that cohesive. When it comes to the Navalny case, its ranks are deeply split—in ways that have all too often been ignored.

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