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By Casey Michel, Director Combatting Kleptocracy Program

The past few weeks have seen an outpouring of both grief and tributes following the death of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. And rightfully so. Navalny’s death in a Siberian gulag effectively snuffed out what many viewed as the clearest path to Russia’s eventual democratization.

No one had fooled themselves that Navalny would, somehow, win Russia’s upcoming election, with President Vladimir Putin’s reelection all but confirmed. But there were plenty, especially in the West, who still viewed Navalny as a figure akin to Nelson Mandela, emerging from a lengthy prison tenure to lead his nation into a bright, democratic future. Now, that dream is dead. And any potential for Russia’s eventual democratization appears even more distant, and even less likely.

But while Russia’s remaining opposition continues to look for new strategies to employ in the wake of Navalny’s death, one clear lesson has hopefully emerged for those in West. It is too risky to place all hopes of a nation’s eventual democratization on a single person.

It’s not just that a singular figure can, as seen with Navalny, be killed. It’s also that for as much bravery as Navalny exhibited—and, to be clear, Navalny illustrated more bravery than most people will ever know—there were clear faults and frailties within his politics. While Navalny arguably proved to be Putin’s most able political opponent, he also shared many of the same revanchist tendencies that propelled Russia into Ukraine in the first place—a reality that far too many in the West preferred to ignore or downplay.

But it is a reality that can no longer be overlooked. After all, if it is Russian nationalism that has unleashed Europe’s most destructive conflict since the Second World War—and pushed the world closer to potential nuclear conflict than anything in decades—then anyone exhibiting these tendencies, as Navalny did for years, must be treated cautiously. And if the clearest lesson to emerge from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that Western interlocutors need to listen more—far, far more—to warnings and analysis from former Russian colonies, then it’s long past time to listen to what Ukrainians have been saying about Navalny and other leading lights of Russia’s anti-Putin opposition.