20.02 Navalny Review

Navalny's Death Has Become an International Event: The West is outraged but powerless, while Trump and the Global South are trying not to offend Putin

The death of Navalny in a Russian prison has had a massive impact worldwide. Western leaders have unequivocally placed responsibility for the politician's death on Vladimir Putin. However, the West has virtually no tools to influence the Kremlin, even symbolically. Nevertheless, the only practical consequence of the shock caused by the death of the politician could be a more favourable attitude of the West towards Russians who have left the country, as well as increased attention to the issue of political prisoners in Russia. Yulia Navalnaya has urged Western leaders to do this, and many experts have commented on this topic. At the same time, in the United States, Navalny's death has become a factor in the pre-election struggle. While Joe Biden has made animated statements holding Putin responsible for Navalny's death, Donald Trump, on the contrary, has refrained from making any assessments of the Russian authorities. At the same time, Navalny's murder has been strongly condemned by many prominent members of the Republican Party, who also hold Putin responsible. Attitudes toward Putin are a divisive issue among Trump supporters, and Navalny's death has intensified debates on this matter in America and among Republicans. Meanwhile, in line with Trump, leaders and governments in the Global South have avoided making any assessments of the Russian authorities or commenting on the death of the Russian opposition figure.

Navalny's murder in a prison in the Arctic has sparked outrage in the Western world. Western leaders have expressed condolences to Alexei Navalny's family and Russians, placing responsibility for the politician's death on Vladimir Putin. The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, announced that the EU's human rights sanctions mechanism will be named after Alexei Navalny and called on the Kremlin to immediately release political prisoners and 'allow an independent and transparent international investigation into the circumstances of Navalny's sudden death’. European supporters of increased support for Ukraine are urging their colleagues to strengthen such support in the face of this crime. Several European countries have already summoned Russian ambassadors to protest against the circumstances of the politician's death.

However, the leadership of the EU and the US has virtually no tools for even symbolic influence on Moscow. In 2021, Joe Biden threatened Putin with ‘devastating’ consequences if Alexei Navalny were to die in prison. Since then, however, almost all of the 'devastating' measures have already been enacted. The 13th round of EU sanctions, planned to be approved on the second anniversary of the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, does not contain any revolutionary innovations and is not related to Navalny's death.

The actual consequence of Navalny's death, however, may be a more sympathetic attitude from the West towards citizens who have left or are leaving Russia for political reasons, as well as greater attention to the issue of political persecution in Russia, which, against the backdrop of the war, has been on the periphery of the attention of politicians and the press. Yulia Navalnaya called for this in her address to the EU Foreign Affairs Council, and many experts have also commented on this issue.

For example, Sam Greene, the director of the Democratic Resilience Programme at the Center for European Policy Analysis and professor at King's College London, believes that the US and its allies have an opportunity to respond to Navalny's murder by taking measures that will have a real impact on the Kremlin and the future of Russian politics. First, a key element of US policy toward Russia should be concern for the fate of political prisoners, Greene notes in The National Interest. Currently, according to Memorial, there are about 700 people in Russian prisons who have been accused of politically motivated charges. They include Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin, Evan Gershkovich, Alsu Kurmasheva, among others. During the Cold War, US diplomacy constantly reminded Moscow that it was monitoring the fate of political prisoners, which may have saved some from reprisals. The US must still do everything possible to keep people alive. 

Second, Greene writes that American politicians should send a clear signal that no matter who takes Putin's place in the future, the easing of sanctions will only be possible if all political prisoners are released. The third element of Greene's proposed strategy is to create asylum opportunities for Russian citizens fleeing repression and war. Finally, Western states need to sever all ties with Russian law enforcement agencies. Greene also believes that no Western court or authority should authorise the extradition of a suspect to Russia or deport a Russian citizen, even to a third country, if there is a possibility that he or she will end up being tried in Russia.

Another way to respond to Navalny's murder is to undermine the legitimacy of Putin and his regime, Mikhail Khodorkovsky has written in his column for Politico. The West should make it very clear that it considers the elections in March and their results illegitimate (Yulia Navalnaya also mentioned this in her address). Such a step would probably lead to the curtailment of many contacts with Putin. Declaring Putin's regime illegitimate would also deal a blow to those who continue to do business with the Kremlin despite sanctions, and would encourage federalisation and democratisation of Russia in the future. If the results of March’s elections are not recognised, the aura of illegitimacy will also encompass Putin's successor, the politician said. However, there is no legal procedure for this, and it is unclear how such non-recognition can be formalised and what consequences it may entail.

In the United States, Navalny's death has immediately become the focus of the presidential campaign. Joe Biden's remarks blaming Putin for the oppositionist's death have sounded particularly forceful against the backdrop of Donald Trump's initial silence and later ambiguous statements. Trump, in a somewhat absurd manner, used Navalny's death to attack American leftists and liberals: 'The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me increasingly aware of what is happening in our country. It is a slow but steady process in which dishonest radical leftist politicians, prosecutors and judges are leading us down a path of destruction.' Thus, Trump avoided making any direct assessments of the Russian authorities.

This position of Trump has not only drawn criticism from Democrats, but also, much more importantly in the current situation, from some Republicans. Nikki Haley, who is positioning herself as a Republican alternative to Trump, said that his knees shake when it comes to Putin. In doing so, she hinted at suspicions that Moscow has dirt on Trump forcing him to be loyal to Putin. In general, hawkish Republicans are characterised by a rather extreme intolerance and harsh assessments of Putin. An example of this type of attitude can be seen in the position of Senator Lindsey Graham from Carolina, who accused Putin of murdering a politician and said once again that Russia should be recognised as a state sponsor of terrorism, as reported by The Telegraph. The question of attitudes towards Putin is thus a potentially divisive issue for Trump's support groups.

But, Trump's evasive position is in line with statements from leaders in the Global South. Brazilian President Lula said, according to Reuters, that it was premature to make any accusations in connection with Navalny's death pending an investigation. A spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party refused to condemn Russia over the death of the politician only noting that India sees Russia as a friend and partner, feels supported by Russia, and supports it in return. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also categorically refused to comment, saying (according to RIA Novosti) that Navalny's death was an internal Russian affair.

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