The Memo

The Memo: Russia tensions rise with Navalny's life in balance

The life of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny looks to be hanging by a thread.

His fate has the potential to ratchet up tensions between the United States and Moscow, which are already running hot.

Navalny has been imprisoned in a notoriously harsh Russian prison since January, convicted of what his supporters consider to be trumped-up charges. He is about three weeks into a hunger strike, seeking to be treated by physicians of his own choosing, and was transferred to a hospital on Monday.

A Russian doctor said to be in touch with Navalny's family wrote that he "could die at any moment" in a Facebook post published over the weekend.

The grave situation is coming to a head just days after President Biden introduced new sanctions on Russia for a raft of alleged misdeeds.

They encompass the SolarWinds hack, which targeted numerous American computer networks, including those of nine government agencies; alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election; and the apparent offering of bounties for the killing of U.S. service members in Afghanistan. Russia denies wrongdoing on all fronts.

But alongside the new sanctions, the White House has held out the possibility of a summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Foreign policy experts believe Putin would welcome such an event, which would play into his keen sense of Russia as a great power.

But should a summit be on the table - even in its current vague form - with the Navalny situation at a crisis point?

White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not engage with the question when asked directly by Eli Stokols of the Los Angeles Times at Monday's media briefing.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who last year introduced a House resolution condemning the Russian government's treatment of Navalny, said he "trusted" Biden on the issue, in stark contrast to former President Trump, but that any meeting would have to foreground human rights concerns.

"A summit like the one Trump had, where he basically gave Putin a pass - well, that's a bad thing," McGovern told The Hill. "If there's a summit, it needs to raise these issues. I trust Biden on this one, but we need to keep up the multilateral pressure. We need our allies to speak out as well."

McGovern reiterated, "I trust Biden, but issues like Navalny need to be at the top of the agenda."

For the moment, the White House is playing its cards close to its vest. Psaki said Monday that "conversations in private can be more effective" than public declarations in terms of diplomacy.

The previous day, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN's "State of the Union" that there would be "consequences" for Russia if Navalny dies. But he did not spell out what those consequences would be.

Sullivan spoke to his Russian counterpart on Monday. A brief note from the White House after the call did not make any mention of Navalny by name.

The statement, from National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne, said that Sullivan and Russian Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev had "discussed a number of issues in the bilateral relationship, as well as regional and global matters of concern."

Horne's statement also said that the two men had discussed "the prospect of a presidential summit" and had "agreed to continue to stay in touch."

Navalny made his name as an anti-corruption campaigner in Russia. His activities, including a documentary about the apparently vast wealth enjoyed by then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, incurred the Kremlin's wrath. He has also alleged widespread corruption by Putin's party and by the president personally.

Russia experts say Navalny's activities have been particularly potent because they have tapped into a broader discontent among the population regarding stagnant living standards - and a sense that Putin and his circle of favored friends exist in a rarefied sphere far above such concerns.

Navalny was poisoned by the use of a nerve agent in August. Video footage exists of him moaning in pain on board a plane bound for Moscow from Tomsk. He was ultimately transferred to Germany, amid much distrust between his family and the Russian medical team treating him.

Navalny recovered in Germany and returned to Russia in mid-January. He was immediately detained.

He is reported to have lost weight rapidly, to have lost certain physical sensations, and to be showing signs of kidney and heart failure.

The Russian authorities have declared Navalny to be in "satisfactory" condition and said that his transfer to hospital on Monday was to begin his treatment with "vitamin therapy."

Given the Kremlin's ruthless treatment of dissenters - and its widely disbelieved denial of involvement in Navalny's poisoning last year - this is believed by few people.

The episode also comes as Russian troops mass near the eastern border of Ukraine. Tensions in the region are at their highest since Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Last week, the top U.S. general in Europe, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, said there was a "low to medium" risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday, regarding the troop build-up, that "we've heard the Russians proclaim this is all about training; it's not completely clear to us that's exactly the purpose."

McGovern, the Democratic congressman, contends that Putin's behavior is emblematic of weakness rather than strength, despite his protestations to the contrary.

The Navalny case, McGovern said, "is an indication that [Putin] is clearly frightened of Navalny or anybody who dares to oppose him or question his leadership. This is what weak leaders do. ... Weak leaders like Putin are too afraid to compete with people like Navalny."

But whether Putin is weak or strong, he still has the ability to fuel volatility on the world stage - and cause America and its allies real trouble.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage

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