Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 February 2024


Navalny stood against Putin’s evil. Will the GOP abandon the fight now?

A person lights a candle next to a portrait of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on Friday. (Reuters)
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Friday has been a dark day for freedom. In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces are on the verge of taking the city of Avdiivka after a months-long fight, thereby bringing closer Vladimir Putin’s goal of fully annexing yet another Ukrainian province: Donetsk. And in a Russian penal colony north of the Arctic Circle, Russia’s foremost dissident, Alexei Navalny, was pronounced dead at age 47.

I am filled with anger and despair as I write these words. Not because I am surprised by the Russian president’s villainy — that, by now, is sadly well-established. But because I am shocked and dismayed that America, the bastion of freedom, might abandon the fight against Putin’s evil. House Republican leaders are giving every indication that they are willing to reward Navalny’s killer by cutting off Russia’s Ukrainian victims from further U.S. aid, thereby making it inevitable that more good people will suffer his fate.

The circumstances of Navalny’s death remain murky. But whatever cause of death is listed on his death certificate, there is no doubt as to who killed him: He was murdered by Putin. Navalny was a tireless and fearless crusader against corruption and in favor of freedom. He was thus a mortal threat to a dictator who has established the most complete personal tyranny in Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin.

Putin had already tried to kill Navalny once, in 2020, by poisoning him with a nerve agent. Navalny survived, thanks to medical care he received in Germany. He could easily have stayed in the West with his beautiful family, yet in January 2021 he chose to return to Russia to lead the fight against Putin in person. He knew what would happen to him upon landing: He would be sent to prison on trumped-up charges. And he was. Yet he willingly sacrificed himself, because he calculated he could be a more effective advocate for freedom within Russia than outside it.

Opinions on Russia
Alexei Navalny and the fight to save Russian democracy

Some Ukrainians had criticized Navalny for flirting with right-wing elements in Russia and embracing Russian nationalism. But although Navalny refused to condemn Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 — a move that was widely popular in Russia — he was a steadfast opponent of Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Last year, he called for Ukraine to return to its internationally recognized 1991 borders, which would mean the return of Crimea.

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Even with Navalny behind bars, his associates continued to expose Putin’s breathtaking corruption — including the dictator’s construction of a $1.3 billion palace. The video about Putin’s palace swiftly reached more than 93 million views on YouTube. We can only imagine Putin’s rage. Navalny’s prison sentence kept getting longer, and the conditions of his imprisonment kept getting worse. As my Post colleague Robyn Dixon notes, “Navalny was repeatedly placed in harsh conditions in solitary punishment cells, confined in those conditions on 27 occasions totaling more than 300 days, often for trivial offenses such as failing to keep his top button fastened.”

In December, Navalny was sent to a former gulag north of the Arctic Circle, where he died Friday. He thus joins a long list of martyrs for Russian democracy — including Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky and Boris Nemtsov — who have been murdered by Putin’s odious regime.

In 2021, President Biden said the consequences of Navalny’s death in prison “would be devastating for Russia.” He no doubt had in mind more sanctions. But since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West has already maxed out sanctions on Russia — or close to it. The Russian economy is hurting but is being kept afloat by oil sales to China, India and Turkey. There is not much more the United States can realistically do on the sanctions front without more cooperation from those nations.

But there are two things that the West can do that would get Putin’s attention:

First, send to Ukraine the estimated $300 billion in frozen Russian assets held in the West, primarily in a Belgian clearinghouse. The European Union and the Group of Seven recently agreed to send to Ukraine the profits from the Russian holdings, which could amount to $4 billion this year. But it would be far more effective to send the entire amount to make clear to Putin that aggression does not pay — literally.

Second, pass the $60 billion aid package for Ukraine that was just approved on a bipartisan vote of 70-29 in the Senate but that remains stuck in the House. Avdiivka is falling because the defenders are running out of ammunition. It would be a tragedy and disaster if that occurred elsewhere along the front lines — or if Ukraine ran out of air-defense ammunition to protect its cities from Putin’s murderous missile and drone strikes.

The only way to avoid Ukraine’s defeat is by providing more U.S. aid. Yet House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), in thrall to former president Donald Trump and his “America First” isolationists, refuses to grant the aid bill a floor vote. A failure to pass the aid bill will reward Navalny’s killer.

It might be no coincidence that Navalny died when he did, and it’s not only because Putin is determined to eliminate all opponents ahead of his farcical “election” next month. Putin is feeling confident because of the emergence of a pro-Kremlin caucus on the American right. Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the very definition of a “useful idiot,” traveled to Russia recently for a simpering interview with Putin followed by the posting of propaganda videos about how much better life supposedly is in Russia than in the United States. Even worse, Trump — who, according to the polls, would win another term if the election were held today — recently said he would not protect NATO members who failed to pay their nonexistent “dues” and said that he would encourage the Russians “to do whatever the hell they want” to those supposed deadbeats.

Putin feels as though he is winning — and thus as though he can get away with murder. Giving that rapacious dictator a sense of impunity and invincibility is extremely dangerous. We can still fight back, however, by giving Ukraine the funds and military equipment it needs to defend itself. Only by defeating Putin’s aggression in Ukraine can we hope to see the emergence of a better, freer Russia — the dream that Navalny gave his life for.


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