Biden was right to call Putin a ‘killer’ — but is he doing enough to save Alexei Navalny?
Alexei Navalny, the most prominent Russian critic of President Vladimir Putin, may be a dead man walking.
The FSB, the Russian successor to the Soviet-era KGB, nearly succeeded in murdering him last summer with a banned chemical weapon. The Russian judicial system jailed him for failing to report to his parole officer in connection with an earlier trumped up political conviction, even though he was then in a coma in a German hospital caused by the FSB’s poison. The Russian penal authorities have deprived Navalny of sleep and adequate medical treatment for herniated discs, leg numbness, loss of feeling in his hands and what may be tuberculosis. When Navalny’s personal doctor showed up at his prison to treat him, she was arrested.
The Kremlin denies that it poisoned Navalny (or that he was poisoned). But does anyone really think that these three Russian agencies acted without Putin’s knowledge, if not his direct authorization?
President Biden merely spoke the truth when ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked him whether he thinks Putin is a killer. “Mmm, I do,” which was a big improvement over Trump’s response to a similar question, when he said, “There a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”
Dozens of journalists have been killed or brutally beaten during Putin’s rule in clear retaliation for their work. Boris Nemtsov, who led massive street protests against Putin, was shot to death in the back. A former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, accused Putin of murdering a journalist and died from poisoning by FSB agents, according to a British inquiry. Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky uncovered evidence that appeared to implicate Russian government officials in a massive tax fraud. He was arrested, jailed without a trial and found dead in his cell after being badly beaten and denied medical treatment. The list goes on.
One can understand why Putin would want Navalny dead or at the very least buried alive in a Russian prison. Navalny is ambitious and social media savvy. He is fearless — after all, he went back to Putin’s lair after recovering from the poisoning. And he gets under Putin’s skin like no one else.
While he was recuperating in Germany, Navalny, pretending to be a top Russian security official, taped and released a conversation with an FSB agent who admitted that the FSB had put poison in Navalny’s underwear. Navalny, mocking Putin as “Vladimir, The Underwear Poisoner,” released the tape. Just after returning to Russia, Navalny managed to release a video of a palace in southern Russia, allegedly belonging to Putin, that looks as though it was built for a Romanov Tsar. The video has been viewed more than 100 million times. Putin is like the bullying movie mogul in “The Godfather” who said, “A man in my position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous!”
Biden showed that he can talk the talk about Vladimir Putin. But can he walk the walk by forcibly and effectively sanctioning Putin? In early March, the Biden administration and the European Union collectively imposed personal sanctions on 11 Russian intelligence, defense and law enforcement officials, and restrictions on exports to some Russian commercial entities. The sanctions have been criticized as inadequate by Navalny’s supporters and by American-born financier Bill Browder, who knows something about Kremlin brutality because Sergei Magnitsky worked for him. After Magnitsky’s death, Browder helped secure passage in Congress of the Magnitsky Act, which infuriated Putin by freezing the assets of some of his corrupt allies. Browder called for the United States to “do more” to help Navalny by sanctioning 35 oligarchs who are close to Putin.
Hopefully Biden is planning even stronger sanctions, perhaps in conjunction with measures that would make the Kremlin “pay a price,” as Biden promised, for its election interference. But Biden must act quickly and forcibly because Navalny is on a hunger strike to protest his mistreatment in prison and has already lost 30 pounds in three weeks. If Navalny dies without further American sanctions, Biden will have let a brave man down.
Gregory J. Wallance is a writer in New York City and a former federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six congressmen of bribery. He is currently working on a book about a turning point in the American-Russian relationship. Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.