by Yug Yadava
Image: Liza Pooor / Unsplash
On August 20, 2020, Alexei Navalny was hospitalized in Siberia, Russia after he reported pain when boarding a plane. This pain was later to be revealed as an effect of the nerve agent, Novichok—the same poison used by the Russian officials under Vladimir Putin to eliminate Navalny as he was Russia’s political opposition leader and a “threat” to Putin’s power. While Navalny was recovering, the Western world reacted, calling out Putin and noting the attack to be a horrendous act; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) noted the significant evidence pointing to Putin’s government for Alexei Navalny’s poisoning. However, one person was notably absent: former U.S. President Donald Trump.
President Trump, while in office, refused to condemn Russia for its role in this attack even with pressure from American lawmakers and allies to the United States. When Navalny finished his recovery in Germany and returned to Russia, he was taken into police custody and on February 2, 2021, and sent to prison for three and a half years. Protests broke out on the streets of the country demanding the political opposition leader’s release and help from the United States, deemed by many to be the greatest example of democracy in the modern world. With the election of President Joe Biden in November 2020, there was hope from many that the Biden administration might be able to assist Navalny. But on March 1, 2021, President Biden’s government announced the sanctions of seven top Russian officials along with fourteen companies related to Alexei Navalny’s poisoning. While some see this as a strong start, many find this to be a weak response to a country that has committed numerous human rights violations.
When a country commits violations, be it for human rights abuse or breaking a treaty, officials might be sanctioned—punished—for their actions. These sanctions can be anywhere from banning trade with a foreign entity to freezing assets. As some notable people have pointed out, the U.S. Code Title 22, number 2798 gives the President authority to impose sanctions on people or foreign bodies that have used chemical or biological weapons. The sanctions can be harsher if there is evidence that more than one violation has occurred. In the case of Navalny, harsher sanctions towards Russian officials and the country itself could have been brought up after sanctions in 2018 were introduced by the United States against Russia for its poisoning of Sergei Skirpal by Novichok. However, President Biden did not do so. This needs to be re-analyzed as Russia has had a history of committing such assassination attempts before under Vladimir Putin. A harsher sanction towards these officials would have also signaled that the United States is not willing to back down from its moral stance of treating all people equally—as stated in the American constitution—and stay firm on how they view Russia’s sly attempts to wipe out political and economic opponents.
But even with harsh sanctions against certain high-level government officials, tactics such as these have been found in multiple studies to only be 5-34% effective. Sanctions such as the one admitted by the Biden administration have rarely worked on Russia in previous instances, as seen when he was serving as Vice President under the Obama administration in 2014. Then-President Obama had launched a series of sanctions against Russia when it invaded Crimea, Ukraine. However, the punishments did not deter Putin’s government as the economy, although damaged by the sanctions, did not suffer as greatly as many would have hoped. On this point, sanctions against Russia have only emboldened Russians to back Putin as they see it as an attack on their nation. To that point, many of Russia’s wealthy citizens get major funding from the Russian government if they comply, thus eliminating the need to spend their money in Europe and North America.
President Biden has experience with previous punishments against Russia after serving as Vice President from 2009-2017, so he should understand the high risk of ineffectiveness these sanctions might pose for Alexei Navalny. The key question from here is what can the United States do to pressure Russia into freeing Navalny from his unjust sentence? While the sanctions imposed may have economic impacts, they do nothing to help the victim.
If sanctions are not the real solution, there must be a better way to get the Russian Federation to free Alexei Navalny. President Biden has already had a conversation with Vladimir Putin during his first few days in office. It is possible for President Biden to hold another lengthy conversation with Putin to discuss options on shortening Navalny’s sentence or even hatching out a negotiation to lift some of the sanctions in exchange for Navalny’s release. Alongside this, verbal support for protests in Russia and around the world for the freedom of Alexei Navalny could trigger some more pressure on Putin for his release from one of the notorious prisons. A compromise as such will be more effective than the current sanctions imposed on Russian officials. Stopping trade on certain key items could hamper the economy of the Russian Federation and the encouragement of allies to impose embargoes could further aid the current international pressure. However, President Biden should not cut relations with Russia. Although the release of Navalny is critical, it could have much larger ramifications for Americans and others around the world, and in turn, jeopardizing the goal of getting Navalny his freedom and back to being a key opposition to Vladimir Putin.
Alexei Navalny is a leader that will not only serve the Russian people well but also help improve the unstable relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. His poisoning and arrest are just one of many atrocities that Putin has committed during his presidency. President Biden was elected with one of his goals being to be tougher on Russia than his predecessor. Although sanctions might sound tough, they might not be as effective given Russia’s large economy and allies. Americans and others urge President Biden to be harder on Russia with the faith that this new source of pressure will allow for Alexei Navalny’s release and a new and friendly Russian insight.