“If you saw me now—maybe you would have a good laugh,” Alexei Navalny wrote on Facebook April 20. “Look at him! A skeleton walking, wobbling around his prison cell. In his hands he is holding his court ruling, rolled up in a tube. With that tube he fervently swings away at mosquitoes covering the walls and the ceiling of his cell. Those buzzing stinging monsters can finish up a man faster than any hunger strike.”
The tone is characteristic of the world’s most famous political prisoner: comic stoicism in the face of approaching death combined with a Gogolian fascination for all the absurdities and trivialities still imposed by a cruel Russian system responsible for its arrival.
Navalny has been starving himself for three weeks. It is a feeble protest, perhaps, against being an involuntary guest of a 21st century gulag, but at least it is wholly his own. For someone who eight months ago was almost killed with a weapon of mass destruction (Novichok), Navalny seems determined to go on being Navalny until the very end, which could be “any minute” now, according to his physician who has not been allowed to examine his patient and can only make diagnoses from afar, based on blood test results.
Navalny risks kidney failure and cardiac arrest owing to abnormally high levels of potassium and creatinine in his blood (“After Novichok,” Navalny wrote, “potassium is not a biggie”). He has been transferred from one miserable penal facility to another where he is now on a regimen of “vitamin therapy.”
No one believes Navalny is being treated; rather, he is being gradually murdered in an internationally exhibited snuff film executive produced and directed by Vladimir Putin.
“I think they will kill him,” a former senior U.S. official, someone I typically turn to for good news, not bad, told me this week. “I don’t think they’ll do a last-minute release back to Germany [where Navalny recuperated from his Novichok poisoning last August] or something like that. Their goal is to watch Navalny slowly die in prison.”
And what can the United States do, or better yet, what is it willing to do to stop “them” and this obscenity? Judging by President Joe Biden’s rhetoric, not much. Navalny’s plight, Biden told reporters last week, was “totally, totally unfair, totally inappropriate,” which is something one says of a lousy referee call on the pitch, not live-streamed, slow-motion homicide.
The messaging, however, is clear: Putin may be a soulless killer but he nevertheless runs an aggressive nuclear hyperpower with which the United States seeks to have “a stable and predictable relationship,” as the White House readout of Biden’s call with him on April 13 stated. Good luck with that, you might say, but the readout ended by telegraphing Biden’s openness to a “summit meeting in a third country in the coming months.” It made no mention of Navalny, who may well be dead by then.
The backdrop to this cautiously extended olive branch is also obvious: the Russian Army could very well be in a “third country” uninvited in the coming days: Ukraine.
As of this writing there are reportedly anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 Russian troops currently deployed to occupied Crimea and the Russian border of the Donbas, itself occupied by undeclared Russian soldiers and intelligence officers masquerading as “separatists.” These troops are joined by a steady increase in warplanes, attack helicopters, tanks, cruise missiles and all the other matériel necessary for a conventional invasion.
Is one forthcoming or is this just a well-choreographed intimidation exercise intended more for Washington’s sake than for Kyiv’s? Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ordered a partial withdrawal from the border a day after Putin’s annual press conference April 21, in which the Russian president spoke of “red lines” against “insults and interference, including in elections,” and he darkly insinuated that the U.S. had just failed to assassinate his client, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, a claim White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said has “no basis in fact.” Last year, the fear among Russia watchers from Washington to Tallinn was that Putin might intervene militarily in Belarus, if not annex the entire country in a definitive move to quell a rising protest movement over stolen election and expand Russian hard power closer into NATO’s backyard. Now, he threatens to re-invade Ukraine.
Biden would no doubt think it more than “unfair” and “inappropriate” of his having to navigate any hot crisis in Easter Europe within the first year of his presidency. A pandemic still rages, China rises, and the U.S. has to withdraw from a 20-year campaign in Afghanistan, to say nothing of roiling domestic cultural crises.
Moreover, Biden already has his hands full with peaceful Europe. See Czechia’s recent disclosure that in 2014, a team of Russian military intelligence operatives blew up an ammunition depot in a village in the east of the country. And not just any operatives: two of them, Col. Alexander Mishkin and Col. Anatoly Chepiga, were the assassins responsible for later trying to murder Emilian Gebrev, a Bulgarian arms dealer in Sofia in 2015 and the former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018. Mishkin and Chepiga’s weapon of choice in both instances was Novichok in what may have been proof of concept for the later operation to kill Russia’s opposition leader, at least the first time around.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN there would be “consequences” if Russia eliminated Navalny in prison. What kind? Sullivan did not elaborate. Nor do we know if he relayed them to Nikolai Patrushev, the chairman of the Russian Security Council, with whom he has his own phone call this week, this one ending with “let’s keep in touch.”
Presumably Navalny would rather Sullivan got his retaliation in first, as a form of deterrence. But neither the U.S. nor E.U. seems eager to impose sanctions before Navalny’s demise. And Angela Merkel, once Navalny’s primary caretaker-in-exile, has reaffirmed her commitment to Russia’s controversial Nord-Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Europe, which the U.S. opposes.
What about sanctioning those hemisphere-hopping Russian oligarchs Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation named when he was first arrested upon his arrival back in Moscow from Berlin in January? That list was divided in three categories, the last two consisting of Russian human rights abusers and those specifically linked to Navalny’s persecution. But the first category is the one that would rattle the Kremlin the most: “Oligarchs upon whom Putin has bestowed wealth and power, and who wield it on behalf of the regime.”
The official excuse I hear from U.S. policymakers is that designating “oligarchs for being oligarchs isn’t how sanctions work.” Washington has to establish a predicate offense. The unofficial excuse I hear is that going after foreign billionaires who act as agents or plenipotentiaries of the Kremlin abroad is embarrassing because they’re so deeply entrenched in the Western financial system—banks, media companies, sports clubs, and real estate. Doing so would only expose the West’s see-no-evil policy with respect to money-laundering, lobbying and kleptocracy, the taints of which should now be obvious to anyone who survived the Trump era.
Putting our own house in order might make it more difficult for Putin to destroy his since there’s no use stealing in Moscow what you can’t spend in London, Paris and New York. As Navalny’s aide Vladimir Milov told me recently, “You don’t have to separate the human rights agenda from realpolitik. They’re inextricable now.”
And so, all across Russia’s eleven time zones, the people have done what they can and turned out to demonstrate for the dying hunger striker who has spent a decade telling them with blog posts and YouTube videos that they deserve better. Again we have seen the stirring scenes of young and old defy riot police and arbitrary detention in an authoritarian state. The solidarity and support have already made a difference to the prisoner. “[T]here is no better weapon against injustice and lawlessness,” Navalny wrote. “This is what keeps me alive right now. Despite the very high level of potassium.”
We in the West are left to hope it will work—while secretly suspecting, like the former U.S. official, that it won’t.