MOSCOW—Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has rarely elicited more than snide dismissals in years of shining a light on what he calls corruption around Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But the target of one of his latest exposés, the head of Russia’s domestic military force, this week challenged Mr. Navalny to a duel and said he would tenderize him into “a nice juicy steak”—a sign the activist has struck a nerve in the Kremlin.
“You are the product of an American test tube…you are all puppets,” said 64-year-old Gen. Viktor Zolotov, dressed in military uniform to deliver a seven-minute denunciation via YouTube. “It’s clear that you have been given the task of pouring dirt on everything around you in order to destabilize both the political and economic situation inside the country.”
The unusually sharp and public response was a break in the Kremlin’s strategy toward Mr. Navalny and his popular videos, which he has used to ignite the largest nationwide protests against Mr. Putin in recent years.
Mr. Putin and his allies publicly ignore Mr. Navalny and seldom mention his name. But Gen. Zolotov’s outburst has brought the kind of attention that the activist thrives on: Pro-Kremlin newspapers gave extensive coverage to Gen. Zolotov’s video, and the head of the Russian Boxing Federation said he is prepared to arrange a bout between the two men.
Mr. Navalny wasn’t in a position to take up the challenge; he is in jail, serving a 30-day sentence for calling for countrywide protests.
After Gen. Zolotov’s address appeared on YouTube, the Kremlin-friendly LifeNews website picked up an opposition newspaper’s story about the wealth of Gen. Zolotov’s son, a topic usually considered taboo for mainstream media. The rebroadcast, and Gen. Zolotov’s outburst, appeared to some analysts to be evidence of divisions inside the Kremlin.
“Zolotov is feeling vulnerable. Not from Mr. Navalny but from other members of the elite who might care to strike him when he’s down,” said Tatyana Stoyanova, a political analyst who has studied the Kremlin elite. Some in the Kremlin view Mr. Navalny’s reports as a way to smear opponents and sway decisions, she said.
Allies of Mr. Navalny say they are aiming to amplify any infighting in Mr. Putin’s inner circle.
“In the Kremlin there are various clans that are at each other’s throats,” said Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer at Mr. Navalny’s Fund Against Corruption. “They use everything they can against each other, and we’re happy for them to use the information published by the Fund Against Corruption, because it touches a nerve.”
Gen. Zolotov, a longtime bodyguard of Mr. Putin, is the head of Russia’s National Guard, known as Rosgvardiya, which was created in 2016 to bring together more than 300,000 troops from various other agencies.
The National Guard answers to Mr. Putin and has been most visible in recent months forcefully rounding up protesters rallying over corruption and plans to raise the pension age.
Mr. Navalny had struck out at Gen. Zolotov in 2016, highlighting property worth millions owned by his family. Gen. Zolotov acknowledged in the video that he was a wealthy man but said he had worked for his money.
Last month, Mr. Navalny published a video alleging that Rosgvardiya had overpaid around 1 billion rubles, or around $14 million, for food as part of a corruption scheme.
He addressed the Rosgvardiya troops directly: “It’s not the people who you are beating with truncheons and dragging into prison vans who are stealing from you. It’s not people who go to protests that are responsible for you eating worse meat for more money,” he said.
That prompted Gen. Zolotov’s demand, with a clenched fist, for “satisfaction” and his claim that Mr. Navalny was “spitting, barking and yapping…because no one kicked your butt as you deserve.” He said Mr. Navalny’s accusations weren’t truthful and that the National Guard was fighting with internal corruption.
Gen. Zolotov’s allies have gathered around him, with one lawmaker submitting legislation regulating duels.
Mr. Navalny, in prison, hasn’t responded, but his supporters have. Some thrown down the gauntlet in sarcastic videos challenging Gen. Zolotov to a pillow fight or a videogame showdown.
Ms. Sobol said Mr. Navalny or his colleagues would be happy to debate Gen. Zolotov on Russian state television.
She also challenged him to take the mathematics part of Russia’s college entrance exam “since you have serious problems counting” the National Guard’s spending.