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Navalny announces end to hunger strike. What changed?

(AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

The last time we checked in on Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, things were still looking fairly grim, but his condition had improved after being transferred to a prison west of Moscow with a full hospital available. Nearly three weeks of being on a hunger strike have taken a toll on the Putin critic and his own doctor warned that he was close to death. Now, however, after having been treated by an independent team of physicians a couple of times, Navalny has announced that enough of his original requests had been granted that he will be coming off of his hunger strike. That won’t happen all at once, however. It will take up to three weeks for him to return to a normal diet. So has Vladimir Putin relented a bit and decided to act a bit more human toward Navalny or is this just a stalling tactic? (Associated Press)

Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Friday he is ending his hunger strike after getting medical attention and being warned by his doctors that continuing it would put his life at risk.

In a message posted to his Instagram account, Navalny said he will continue to demand a visit from his doctor to address numbness in his legs and arms -– his main demand. But he said he would halt the strike on its 24th day after having been examined by doctors who were not affiliated with the prison, something he called “a huge progress.”

He also acknowledged the mass pro-Navalny protests across Russia on Wednesday and the support he received from around the globe.

So Navalny still wants to see his own personal physicians over some ongoing medical complaints, but that hasn’t happened yet. He was, however, allowed to be seen by independent doctors not affiliated with the prison, so that’s a start. He’s still able to keep up communications with the outside world, which is also encouraging. And his willingness to back off from the hunger strike also suggests that perhaps he sees some additional progress on the horizon.

That’s not a definite explanation, however. In the statement he just released, Navalny also pointed to reports that some of his supporters around the country had similarly gone on hunger strikes in sympathy with him. He said that he couldn’t bear the thought of their going through that sort of painful journey on his behalf. It’s either a noble sentiment or a convenient explanation. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

This news causes me to wonder whether something significant has changed inside of Vladimir Putin’s fortress of darkness. Only a week ago, the situation in Russia looked fairly dire from a couple of different angles. Not only were the Russian officials acting as if they were just going to let Navalny die in his cell, but Putin was amassing a huge military force with more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. Tensions were running high and the possibility of a full-blown invasion seemed to be in play.

Now, only a handful of days later, Alexei Navalny is looking like he may be out of the woods. Simultaneously, Russia has begun withdrawing most of its troops and military hardware from the border. Could all of the international pressure on Putin actually have worked and led him to back down or is he simply playing a longer game?

I doubt he sees the Navalny situation as posing too much of a risk. Even if the dissident dies in jail, Putin can do what he always does when one of his adversaries conveniently disappears or winds up dead. He denies any involvement, holds a sham investigation (if there’s any investigation at all), and simply moves on until the chatter about the situation subsides. I simply can’t believe that he suddenly thinks that won’t work with Navalny.

Invading eastern Ukraine would be another matter. There would be far more international outrage. But as we’ve discussed here previously, nobody is about to start a shooting war with Russia unless Putin suddenly starts a massive military campaign heading toward the west on multiple fronts without provocation. The most that would likely happen would be even more stifling sanctions from western nations, which Putin tends to ignore anyway. But if all he was doing with that military build-up was “sending a message,” it was a pretty expensive message to deliver.

I still maintain that we can’t trust Putin as far as we can throw one of his tanks, but at least for now the situation in Russia appears to have entered a calmer phase. And we could all use a little more calm given everything else that’s going on.