Apr 30, 2021 | OPINION | By Emma McDermott | Photo courtesy of The Catalyst Archives
Alexie Navalny has endured injustice, Siberian prison and countless attempted assassinations. He needs global support. The leader of the free world, President Joe Biden, has been weak in his response and must do more to combat authoritarian drives of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Last week, Navalny ended a 24-day-long hunger strike, beginning on March 31 and concluding April 23. It was under the advice of doctors he trusted, whose counsel he had been denied previously by the Russian government –– which prompted this protest — that Navalny decided to end his weeks-long fast.
On Aug. 20, 2020, Navalny had been hospitalized in Siberia after losing consciousness and becoming ill. He was aboard a flight when this happened and was subsequently airlifted to Berlin for more extensive treatment just two days later. There, German doctors suspected that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent; these suspicions were confirmed independently by lab tests in both France and Sweden.
The Kremlin immediately and continually rejected claims that Moscow and President Vladimir Putin, against whom Navalny has been a strong critic, were behind the attack. Whatever you make of Putin’s denial is up to you; in my opinion, this event is but another blatant assault on free speech and emblematic of his fragile, high-maintenance ego.
Upon release from the hospital, Navalny defiantly promised that he would be returning to Russia, for which his bravery was lauded.
On Jan. 17, 2021, Navalny landed in Moscow, where he was detained for violating the terms of a jail sentence he was still in the midst of serving. A more detailed timeline of events can be found here.
After being jailed for several months since his return, Navalny began experiencing back pain and numbness in his legs and hands. He was denied care and examination by personal doctors, limiting his access to doctors who laughed when he asked about his diagnosis and medical records. He demanded to be allowed to see a doctor he trusted and was repeatedly rejected, prompting the hunger strike in protest of such treatment.
As days turned into weeks of this protest at the penal colony, there was growing international concern for Navalny’s deteriorating health and ultimately his survival. He was transferred to a prison hospital and blood tests provided to his family indicated that he was “close to death.”
As this news broke to the world, President Biden’s response appeared disappointingly meager. Although Biden has already done more during his first months as president to punish Putin than his predecessor did during the entirety of his tenure, Biden should nevertheless be held to a higher standard.
He is the leader of the free world, so to speak, and he owes it to the bravest person in Russia, the person who has stood up to Putin countless times, to stand up to Putin himself.
Threats and warnings tied to Navalny’s potential death are not enough. More dramatic action should have been taken prior to Navalny’s life becoming endangered by the hunger strike. If Navalny had died and Biden’s response was left as it was, Biden, too, would have been responsible for his death.
Navalny could be an asset to the U.S., and losing him would have hurt America; Putin would have become all the more powerful, and any hope for progress towards democracy that Navalny catalyzes could have evaporated.
Russia is by no means a bastion of democracy, free speech or the right to protest peacefully. And while, in my opinion, the U.S. is not the shining city on a hill it claims to be in these areas, President Biden had a responsibility to punish President Putin for allowing Navalny’s hunger strike to happen and endure for as long as it did.
Being tougher on Putin was something Biden focused precious time and energy on during his campaign. Besides his handling of the pandemic, one of the Democrats’ and Biden’s biggest criticisms of President Trump was his weakness to stand up to Putin for a myriad of things.
There were even reports that Putin offered to pay members of the Taliban bounties for the heads of U.S. soldiers, and when asked about it in an interview last summer, Trump admitted that it was something he didn’t bring up in a recent phone call.
While the Russian bounties issue has been disputed by the U.S. Intelligence community, I would have hoped and expected that even a rumor like this would have poised Biden to be tough on Putin. This Navalny hunger strike episode was the perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate the kind of strength, courage and morality that the U.S. boasts about.
Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, assured “we have communicated to the Russian government that what happens to Mr. Navalny in their custody is their responsibility.” But what happened to Mr. Navalny was also Biden’s responsibility.