Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 9 April 2021


Putin is slowly murdering Alexei Navalny. Here’s how the U.S. can save him.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a teleconference call in Moscow on Friday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a teleconference call in Moscow on Friday. (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)
Opinion by the Editorial Board
April 9, 2021 at 11:42 p.m. GMT+8

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin’s regime is slowly but very intentionally murdering his leading political opponent, Alexei Navalny. Mr. Navalny, whom the Russian secret police unsuccessfully sought to kill last summer with a banned chemical weapon, is now being held in a prison camp known for its harsh conditions about 60 miles from Moscow. Since his arrival there in late February, he has been systematically deprived of sleep through hourly wakings and denied proper medical treatment for serious ailments, including herniated and bulging disks in his back and a respiratory ailment Mr. Navalny believes may be tuberculosis. Since last week, Mr. Navalny has been on a hunger strike to protest his treatment; his lawyers say his weight is down 30 pounds and is falling by two pounds a day.

Why can we assume that Mr. Putin intends to kill Mr. Navalny? First, because he already tried — a fact thoroughly documented by Mr. Navalny and a group of private investigators during his five-month convalescence in Germany. Second, because the dissident now poses an even greater threat to the regime than he did before the poisoning. His courageous return to the country in January and immediate arrest on trumped-up charges triggered some of the largest protest demonstrations Russia has seen in Mr. Putin’s two decades of rule.

We also know that the Kremlin has done this before. In 2009, Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a massive fraud perpetrated by a group of senior government officials, died in prison following gross mistreatment like that Mr. Navalny is enduring. The Western businessman who employed him, William Browder, has spent the past decade seeking justice in the case, including by inducing the United States and other Western governments to enact laws providing for the sanction of all those involved in Mr. Magnitsky’s case as well as in other human rights violations. Mr. Browder calls what is happening to Mr. Navalny a “slow-motion assassination”; Amnesty International says the regime is creating “a situation of a slow death and seeking to hide what is happening.”

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Mr. Navalny’s supporters are taking great risks to focus attention on his case. On Tuesday, nine of his supporters, including several doctors, traveled to his prison camp to demand that he receive proper medical treatment; they were arrested and later sentenced to a week in prison. Meanwhile, more than 350,000 Russians have pledged to take part in public demonstrations for Mr. Navalny, even though they risk arrest or assault by security forces. Organizers say the protests will be scheduled when half a million have signed up.

The United States and other Western governments have taken some steps to support Mr. Navalny, including sanctions against officials and entities involved in his poisoning and imprisonment. But if his life is to be saved, much stronger action is needed. Mr. Browder argues that the right targets are the 35 oligarchs whom Mr. Navalny himself has identified as the holders and protectors of Mr. Putin’s massive private fortune. Start freezing assets and applying visa bans to those tycoons and their families, he advises, and keep going until Mr. Navalny is released. That sounds like a strategy that has a chance of working; if it doesn’t, it will be a head start on what must be the consequences if the Kremlin’s creeping murder plot goes forward.

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