In his January 26, 2021 phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Joe Biden brought up Russia’s poisoning of opposition political leader Alexei Navalny. Exactly one week later, disregarding President Biden’s words, Russia sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months of imprisonment – apparently for violating the terms of his suspended sentence by going to Germany for medical treatment after being poisoned by Russian agents.
To be clear: Navalny is no friend of the West. He is a hardline Russian nationalist. But his imprisonment speaks volumes about the state of Russia today: the brazenness is shocking and revealing.
Several things are noteworthy about the current state of play:
- Navalny returned to Russia after having been poisoned and knowing he would be arrested and probably imprisoned. Such courage and determination indicate that he believes opposition to Putin is widespread and growing.
- The fact that protests are occurring across Russia – not just in Moscow – is significant. Unlike other, more “western” opposition elites, Navalny enjoys support across the country, and has crystalized everyday Russians’ frustrations with the Kremlin.
- That said, the Kremlin is not concerned about demonstrations that only amount to a few tens of thousands of people. Unless the number swells to a million or more in Moscow, the Kremlin calculates it can crack down and outlast the demonstrators. This is not Minsk.
- Putin’s swift imprisonment of Navalny and the arrest of thousands of demonstrators likewise demonstrates that Putin has every determination to crack down on any meaningful opposition in Russia. Nemtsov was shot; Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza were poisoned, and Putin continues on.
- Putin’s iron grip extends to information as well. Reportedly half of Russians believe that Navalny’s poisoning and return to Russia is part of a Western intelligence plot to undermine Putin.
- Finally, Western entreaties and statements of outrage have no impact on Putin.
Putin’s determination to maintain authoritarian control at home – especially in spite of German, American, EU, and other Western objections – should tell the West that Putin will likewise not ease up on his aggressive foreign policies. Indeed, he may escalate in order to demonstrate to the Russian people that he is defending Russian interests abroad.
The response from the West must therefore be firm and unequivocal. We should know by now, after 20 years of Putin controlling Russia, that he will pursue his efforts to dismantle the West, undermine democracy, and exercise Russian hegemony over its neighbors and disruptive influence globally, as a matter of Kremlin strategy. There is no “working together” with Russia, when this is the orientation of the Kremlin.
That is why U.S. and European harsh words, combined with signals of willingness to “work with” Russia where possible, even when we disagree on issues like Navalny, only play to Putin’s hand. Without a tangible consequence – sanctions against Kremlin insiders, diplomatic shut-downs, cyber-push-back – Putin will not take Western admonitions seriously.
President Biden is the fourth U.S. President that Vladimir Putin has welcomed to office. Biden’s three predecessors all engaged in some form of willingness to engage with Russia – seeing “into his eyes,” “re-set” policy, or “why can’t we just get along?”
The U.S. State Department statement about Navalny on February 2, 2021, was strong and clear. But the final sentence, which begins, “Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests…” will be read by Putin, despite the intent of its authors, as a signal that the game is afoot.
Joe Biden needs to be the President who finally indicates to President Putin that it is Russia’s turn to re-think its policies, rather than the West’s turn to – yet again – rethink its own.