Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 19 February 2024


How Russians and the West Failed Navalny


Garry Kasparov

Feb. 19, 2024 12:01 pm ET

A photo of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a makeshift memorial in Frankfurt, Germany, Feb. 16. Photo: -/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was murdered in a prison north of the Arctic Circle on Friday. There is no need for semantic blame games when a political prisoner dies. There are no natural causes or accidents in the gulag. It’s murder by dictatorship, as damning as if Vladimir Putin pulled the trigger himself.

Mr. Putin tried and failed to kill Navalny quickly and secretly with poison in 2020, and now he has murdered him slowly and publicly in prison. Navalny’s only crime was to expose Mr. Putin and his mafia as the bandits they are, and to do it with charisma and humor.

Navalny and I disagreed on many things about the past and future of Russia, as he did with many in the broad anti-Putin coalition. But we agreed that Mr. Putin had to go, and that none of the disagreements among us would matter until that happened.

Now Alexei is dead, and with him the last gasp of Russian society that failed him, failed Russia and failed the world with its apathy. He was a man of optimism and action in a country of nihilism and inaction, a tragic condition he shared with me and our colleague Boris Nemtsov, who returned to Russia only to be gunned down in the street in front of the Kremlin in 2015.

Mr. Putin killed Navalny, but there is blame enough to go around. First, we Russians who failed to match Alexei’s courage and end Mr. Putin’s dictatorship and war can’t escape responsibility. Some of us tried, and he marched with us in numbers that seem a fantasy now. It wasn’t enough.

Is it wrong to wonder what might have been? If we had been as brave as the Ukrainians were a few years later when they took to the streets and risked their lives to free themselves?

Perhaps the last, best chance was the huge demonstration in Moscow on Dec. 24, 2011, not long before the regime cracked down heavily on such actions. Navalny surely sensed the moment when he took his turn on the stage in front of tens of thousands of protesters.

“I can see that there are enough people here to seize the Kremlin and the White House”—the federal government headquarters—“right now. We are a peaceful force and will not do it now. But if these crooks and thieves try to go on cheating us, if they continue telling lies and stealing from us, we will take what belongs to us with our own hands!”

Would the people have followed us? Would the thousands of police have opened fire, or joined us? Would we now be free, or long dead? The regret of inaction is tenfold the regret of action.

Also deserving of blame are the Western politicians who treated Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 and jailing the following year as just another negotiating point with Mr. Putin. Lots of talk, no action, more pointless peace talks and corrupt deals, more blood on their hands.

President Biden’s threat in 2021 of “devastating” consequences should anything happen to Navalny in prison will now be put to the excruciating test. After decades of crimes and aggression, Mr. Putin has crossed another bloody red line. He feels confident there will be no repercussions. If he’s proved correct, his murderous confidence will increase.

Ukraine is the weak point in Mr. Putin’s armor. Mr. Biden can’t hide behind Republican obstruction of Ukraine aid, as reprehensible as it is. The White House doesn’t need Congress to send Ukraine long-range artillery like ATACMS and fighter jets essential to protect civilians from Russia’s incessant bombing.

Nor can Mr. Biden blame MAGA obstruction for failing to seize more than $300 billion in Russian Central Bank assets and using them to aid Ukraine. Seizing and selling the luxury yachts and real estate in the West belonging to Mr. Putin and his oligarchs would also be a fitting tribute to Navalny, whose anticorruption campaigns exposed their looted riches.

But I’m afraid Western politicians prefer dissidents to be martyrs. They can leave flowers and say nice words while negotiating with the murderer. No one challenges such hypocrisy. Navalny was a fighter first and always, and unless Mr. Biden, Germany’s Olaf Scholz and the rest are going to fight, they should keep his name off their forked tongues.

We may also use this tragic moment to shame those who openly side with Mr. Putin, from Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump to propagandists like Tucker Carlson and amplifiers like Elon Musk. But should we bother, when they can’t be shamed?

Mr. Carlson was just in Moscow, where he had a fawning interview with Mr. Putin before producing a series of videos in which he gaped in awe at Russian supermarkets and subway stations. The parallels with Western communist sympathizers such as Walter Duranty are accurate. But this is more, and worse. It’s a concrete campaign to promote Mr. Putin’s bloodthirsty dictatorship, to normalize his regime and his war crimes. If Mr. Carlson were still in Moscow, he could gape at the amazingly low price of human life in Mr. Putin’s dictatorship.

Why murder Navalny now? Mr. Putin obviously felt safe to finish the job, and, as a coward and bully, he is always most dangerous when he feels safe and triumphant. Consider why he feels that way, with American aid for Ukraine paralyzed by the GOP House, Mr. Biden feigning helplessness, and Mr. Trump leading the polls.

In discussions at the Munich Security Conference, an annual forum on international security policy, Navalny’s murder threatened to overshadow the daily deaths of innocent Ukrainians at the same hand. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the leaders of the free world are treading water while Ukrainians spill blood. If Mr. Biden and the rest of the free world really wish to strike a “devastating” blow against the killer in the Kremlin, they need only provide Ukrainian hands with the weapons they need to strike it.

The West seems intent on duplicating the apathy of Russians in the face of Mr. Putin’s aggression and the results will be the same. He will grow bolder and the price of stopping him will keep going up. The risk to Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Poland will rise along with the threat to other political prisoners like activist Vladimir Kara-Murza and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Mr. Gershkovich was taken into custody in March on an allegation of espionage that he, the Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny.

Alexei Navalny was a man of courage and action, and only courage and action can honor him now.

Mr. Kasparov is chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the Renew Democracy Initiative and a board member of the World Liberty Congress.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly

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