Just five months after being poisoned with the lethal nerve agent Novichok and being treated in Berlin, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny made his return to Russia. Upon arriving at the airport in Moscow, Navalny was detained on sight and taken to a local police station where he was put on trial in a hastily assembled kangaroo court. The Federal Penitentiary System claimed that Navalny may face jail time for violating the terms of a suspended sentence in 2014 for embezzlement; Russian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest one week ago. Following the “trial” at the police station, Navalny was arrested for thirty days pending a larger scale trial. To quote Navalny, “The man in the bunker [Putin] is so scared that they literally threw the law in the trash. [...] This is lawlessness of the highest degree.” [English translation]
To the Russian government, Navalny’s assassination attempt and arrest are just another number for their books. Reporters, journalists, and political figures who do so much as openly criticize Putin’s actions or the country disappear, get arrested, or die a violent death. In 2018, similar to Navalny, former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, along with his 33-year old daughter, were found slipping in and out of consciousness in Salisbury, England; it was later revealed that they were poisoned with Novichok. In 2015, former Deputy Prime Minister under Yeltsin and outspoken Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was shot four times in the back on a bridge outside the Kremlin. He condemned Putin’s government, calling it an “increasingly authoritarian, undemocratic regime” and published in-depth reports detailing Putin’s corruption. At the time he was assassinated, Nemtsov was helping to organize a rally against Russian military intervention in Ukraine. They’re not the first ones to be targeted, but they’re certainly not the last. They are among the many who risked their lives to expose the corrupt and heinous actions taken by Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and the rest of the Russian government. They gave their all in hopes that a better Russia would soon come.
As stated previously — these are just numbers to Putin. To the rest of the world, it is a clear and present danger that must be dealt with. These arrests and assassinations have occurred for too long, and will continue as long as Putin and his band of thugs remain in power.
The Kremlin has denied — and will continue to deny — taking any part in the poisoning of Navalny, just like they have with the others.
Prior to the January 24 protests, Russian authorities launched a wave of searches and arrests targeting pro-Navalny activists. Mass protests broke out across Russia (with some smaller protests in France and Belarus) in support of Alexei Navalny. Many of the protestors within Russia were met with brutal police force, and nearly 4,000 were detained. Members of Navalny’s team — and even his family — who had not previously been arrested in the first wave of protests were also detained. Accompanying the detentions were raids on homes and offices, including Navalny’s apartment. When asked about the searches and arrests, the Kremlin simply responded that “law enforcement agencies are doing their job.”
Despite the massive crackdown on Navalny’s team and supporters, the people are determined to keep fighting. Protests continued the following weekend of January 31 with over 5,100 arrests. The next day, a Russian court sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months in prison; no photos or video were allowed to be taken, but Navalny’s team ensured that their livestream of the absurdity would continue. More protests broke out following his sentencing. The people were met with a heavy presence of riot police, but did not let that stop them. By the end of the night, over 1,400 arrests were made.
No matter how many suppression tactics the Kremlin attempts, they truly are no match for the opposition. They will not allow Putin to have control over them in the end. From prison, Navalny has encouraged his supporters to keep fighting, while also pushing back against the government. “A huge number of people, tens of millions of people, agree with me. Yes, right now the force is on your side,” he said. “But this won’t continue forever.”
Within two hours of Navalny’s arrest on January 17, President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan quickly issued a statement via Twitter:
“Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable. The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard.” [Tweet]
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Tony Blinken stated that handling Navalny’s case would be a priority, stating, “It is extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man. I think that speaks volumes. And Mr. Navalny is a voice, I think, for millions and millions and millions of Russians, and their voice needs to be heard in Russia.”
The harsh tone toward Putin is nothing new from President Biden. After German officials confirmed in September that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok, Biden issued a scathing statement, directly placing the blame on Vladimir Putin:
“Once again, the Kremlin has used a favorite weapon — an agent from the Novichok class of chemicals — in an effort to silence a political opponent. The mode of attack leaves no doubt as to where the responsibility lies — the Russian state.”
On January 26, President Biden had his first call with Vladimir Putin. Consistent with his previous tone on Russia, Biden pressed Putin on several issues relating to national security, as well as Navalny’s poisoning and arrest. While all options to address this attack, including diplomacy, are on the table, Biden has made it clear that he will not cave into Putin’s wants and instead plans to ensure that Putin is held accountable for his crimes. As stated in a White House briefing, “President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies.”
That same day, the G7 Foreign Ministers issued a statement on Navalny’s arrest and detention. As it was in President Biden’s statement, the usage of Novichok was directly tied to Putin. The arrest of Alexei Navalny was deemed “politically motivated,” and they demanded that the Russian government release the thousands of protestors and journalists arrested. In addition, the G7 Foreign Ministers demanded Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release, stating that “Russia is bound by its national and international obligations to respect and ensure human rights.”
President Biden has called on his Western European allies to join the United States in holding the Putin regime accountable. Based on the swift reaction from Biden’s team after the news of Navalny’s arrest, one thing is clear: the Biden administration will not hesitate to act. It is a necessity for the rest of Europe to work alongside the US in bringing an end to an authoritarian regime.
We stand with Alexei Navalny, his team, and his supporters against these undemocratic, politically-motivated arrests. It has been known for decades that the Putin regime is an evil empire; it actively poses a threat to the liberty and freedom of people within Russia and across the globe. The world knows he is nothing more than a monster who poses as a strongman. Russia prides itself in being a “free and strong democracy” when in reality, it is far from that. A free and strong democracy does not detain its opposition leader and arrest protestors and journalists en masse. “Hundreds of thousands cannot be locked up,” says Navalny. “More and more people will recognize this. And the moment they recognize this — and that moment will come — all of this will fall apart, because you cannot lock up the whole country.”
Alexei Navalny is a prisoner of conscience — he and his supporters must be freed unconditionally and immediately. The United States will not allow such blatant disregard for human rights, nor any leader to stand between the people and freedom, security, and safety.