Will Navalny’s Murder Refocus the West on Ukraine?


As shock and outrage erupted worldwide over the death of 47-year-old Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition activist, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker lamented that Navalny’s premature demise “is beneficial first and foremost to Russia’s enemies.”

Let’s hope that the words of Sergei Mironov are predictive, that the slow-motion murder of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most ardent critic shakes American and other political figures out of their deluded admiration of the most murderous dictator since his role model Josef Stalin.

U.S. political support for Ukraine in its valiant defense against the invasion Putin launched two years ago has been weakened by Donald Trump’s appeal to his sycophantic extremists in the U.S. House of Representatives. For reasons unclear, perhaps even to Trump himself, the former president has been serving as Putin’s lobbyist in Congress, pressing the “chaos caucus” to block aid to Ukraine desperately needed to withstand Russia’s bloody effort to depose Ukraine’s elected leaders and install a Kremlin-controlled puppet government.

“It is obvious that he was killed by Putin,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in Germany to seal aid pacts with Berlin and other European capitals, said of Navalny’s death on Friday.

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is widely seen in the international security arena as the first step toward recovering a Greater Russia empire by conquering former Soviet republics and Eastern European allies that have abandoned the authoritarian bloc to join the institutions of democracy.

The United States, NATO, the European Union and Ukraine are the “enemies” Putin loyalist Mironov alluded to. He presumably intended those comments to reinforce Kremlin-instilled fears among Russians that their country and its lost Communist-era sphere of influence are the actual victims of post-Soviet political realignments.

Two decades of unrelenting state propaganda have convinced most Russians to be complicit, or complacent, as Putin reverses earlier progress made toward a less repressive society after Communists lost control and the Soviet federation broke apart in 1991 into its 15 constituent republics, Russia and Ukraine the most powerful among them.

Putin’s aggressions against domestic opponents and former Soviet-era republics and allies have been denounced throughout his two dozen years in power as assaults on the post-World War II order that maintained peace and security in the developed world for more than 75 years.

Navalny had been neutralized by trumped-up charges of corruption and extremism. His defiant return to Russia after being poisoned in August 2020 by the nerve agent Novichok led to immediate detention and a three-year odyssey of show trials and increasingly harsh imprisonment. Even in Siberian exile the tall, blue-eyed, charismatic Navalny could reach his supporters through trademark mocking of his tormenters during court appearances and interviews.

From the paranoid perspective of Putin, Navalny had to be eliminated, just as the last, best hope for a democratic candidate’s survival was eliminated nine years ago in a drive-by assassination of former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov on the doorstep of the Kremlin.

“Make no mistake, Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death,” President Joe Biden told reporters at an impromptu press appearance at the White House. He urged Congress to quickly approve the administration’s $60 billion aid package for Ukraine, calling the House of Representatives’ decision this week to take a two-week vacation “bizarre.”

“We have to provide the funding so Ukraine can keep defending itself against Putin’s vicious onslaughts and war crimes,” Biden warned, noting a bipartisan Senate vote that passed earlier this week to fund Ukraine. “Now, as I’ve said before, and I mean this in a literal sense, history is watching. History is watching the House of Representatives.”

Biden also slammed former President Donald Trump for his appeal to Putin to do “whatever the hell he wants” to Ukraine without fear of U.S. intervention if any NATO country fails to invest the alliance standard of 2% of GDP in national defense resources.

“This is an outrageous thing for a (former) president to say. I can’t fathom it,” Biden said. “As long as I’m president, America stands by our sacred commitment to our NATO allies, as they have stood by their commitments to us repeatedly.” 

Most Putin foes who escaped or survived physical and financial retaliation in Russia have taken refuge outside the country.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov tweeted on X from his European self-exile that Navalny was killed “for exposing Putin and his mafia as the crooks and thieves they are.” Kasparov said Putin failed to murder Navalny with poison and instead “murdered him slowly and publicly in prison.”

“No matter the formal cause, the responsibility for the premature death is Vladimir Putin personally, who first gave the green light to the poisoning of Alexei and then put him in prison,” wrote Mikhail Khodorkovsky in an online blast at the Kremlin. The former Russian oil magnate spent 10 years in prison after politically challenging Putin early in his tenure. He has lived in various European cities since his release from prison and expropriation of his Yukos oil company fortune.

Navalny’s death at an Arctic Circle prison colony, a remnant of Stalin’s notorious gulag archipelago, was announced in a terse statement from the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service. It said the Putin foe collapsed and died after a walk at the IK-3 penal colony in Kharp, one of the harshest prisons in the country renowned for brutal incarceration. The statement identifying Navalny as a “blogger” was carried on the English-language TASS news agency but did not appear on the main Russian-language news site.

Western media investigations of Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020 revealed a Kremlin hand in the activist’s near-death collapse during a flight from Siberia to Moscow. Novichok is a Soviet-era chemical weapon among others supposed to have been secured by Kremlin security forces after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It is not something available beyond that inner circle of KGB domestic and GRU military intelligence operatives.

Navalny’s death may not have been intended at this particular time. Putin faces a presidential election next month in which all candidates with any chance to draw even a modicum of support were stricken from the March 15 ballot on dubious claims of ineligibility. For Navalny, Putin’s last vocal but neutralized critic, to die in remote state confinement raises the specter of overkill in the disengaged domestic electorate that promises to easily re-elect Putin to another six-year term.

News of Navalny’s death just one day after he appeared healthy and characteristically sarcastic in a videotaped court appearance from his prison cell intensified speculation of state intervention to hasten his death.

Long expected but nevertheless shocking, Navalny’s demise coincided with the Friday start of the annual Munich Security Conference where world leaders, security officials and peace advocates, including the dissident’s wife-now-widow, gathered for the weekend event. They immediately pointed fingers at Putin.

“I want Putin and all his friends, his government, to pay a price for what they have done. I call on the world to unite and defeat this evil,” said a visibly shaken Yulia Navalnaya.

Navalny’s last post on the Telegram messaging channel was a Valentine’s Day note to his wife, saying “blizzards and thousands of kilometers” of separation could never come between them. “I feel that you are there every second, and I love you more and more.”

Disgust and dismay echoed from the conference that was already expected to be focused on Russian threats to the region before word of Navalny’s death spread.

“His death in a Russian prison and the fixation and fear of one man only underscores the weakness and rot at the heart of the system that Putin has built,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Munich.

Navalny’s activism surged in 2011 in stirring opposition to Putin’s campaign for the Russian presidency after a four-year hiatus during which his parliamentary allies scuttled constitutional term limits preventing his bid for a third four-year term. A second constitutional manipulation two years ago allows Putin to seek two more six-year terms, which could keep him in power until 2036.

“Whether Putin pulled the trigger or not, he’s responsible,” former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta told CNN. “There’s no question Navalny paid a price for trying to be a patriot in Russia.”

Panetta recalled Putin’s most recent resort to murder to eliminate an opponent in the August midair bombing of a private plane carrying Wagner Group mercenary force leader Yevgeny Prigozhin on a flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

Veteran foreign affairs analyst and anchor Andrea Mitchell told MSNBC viewers from the Munich gathering that Putin’s Kremlin is holding American journalist Evan Gershkovich in demand of an exchange for a Russian assassin held in Germany in the Navalny poisoning attack. It was unclear how Navalny’s death and fresh attention on Putin’s human rights abuses would affect the fate of the 32-year-old American journalist who has been at Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison for nearly a year on charges of espionage relating to his pursuit of sources on Russian military casualties in the Ukraine war. 

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.



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