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Putin ignores Western criticism over death of chief Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny

  • February 17, 2024

As outrage over the death of chief Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny reverberates across the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin is turning a deaf ear to Western anger as he prepares to extend his 24-year rule in an election next month and police across Russia continue to squelch any protest attempts.

The U.S. and its allies are pondering new sanctions against Russia over Navalny’s death and the Kremlin’s recent actions in Ukraine. But as U.S. aid for Ukraine remains stuck in Congress and NATO allies in Europe struggle to fill the gap, many wonder what the West can actually do to stop the ruthless Kremlin leader, given that multiple previous rounds of penalties have failed to.

“There isn’t really the room for any great value in additional sanctions” against Russia, already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, Mark Galeotti, head of the London-based Mayak Intelligence consultancy firm noted in a YouTube commentary.

Instead, Galeotti said, the West should focus more on working with Navalny’s allies and helping ordinary Russians get access to information channels that counter Kremlin propaganda.

Such efforts are key especially now, according to Galeotti, who described Navalny’s death as yet another step in Putin’s transition from “hybrid authoritarianism” to “brutal thuggish despotism.”

The U.S. and NATO allies have been weighing more actions to bolster support for Ukraine, where the Russian military has just forced Ukrainian troops to retreat from a key eastern stronghold of Avdiivka after a four-month ferocious battle. The allies discussed ways to increase the cost of war to Russia to force Putin to back down.

But the 71-year-old leader has vowed to press on, refusing to relinquish any of his gains and declaring in an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson last week that the West will “sooner or later” be forced to negotiate a deal — on his terms.

Navalny’s death shows Putin’s “complete ruthlessness and disdain … for both Western and international opinion,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Russia announced Navalny’s death on Friday, just as Western leaders gathered at a security conference in Munich.

Putin is “throwing down a gauntlet to the West,” Gould-Davies said. “As we come up to the second anniversary of the (Ukraine) war, he is again testing Western resolve.”

Navalny’s death should serve as a “wake-up call” to U.S. Republicans opposing aid for Ukraine in Congress and also encourage European NATO allies to bolster their assistance to Ukraine, Gould-Davies said.

“Ultimately it depends on the lessons that the West draws,” he said.

But Navalny’s death didn’t appear to move the U.S. House speaker Friday to commit to a proposed $61 billion aid package for Ukraine, seen as crucial to a Ukrainian victory.

Meanwhile, Putin, the longest-serving Russian leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, is steamrolling toward another six years in power in a campaign involving three token rivals nominated by Kremlin-friendly parties. Boris Nadezhdin, a liberal politician who made ending the war in Ukraine his chief campaign slogan, was barred from running by election officials.

Yet, while there was little doubt that Putin would prevail in the election, Navalny’s death still demonstrated “how much he saw Navalny as a threat,” Gould-Davies said.

“The way the Kremlin has conducted that election campaign so far suggests that they are not confident,” he said, adding that “even from prison, Navalny managed to get his voice out.”

Navalny’s death just weeks before the March 15-17 presidential election possibly marked “the final act of the dismantling and crushing of any semblance of Russian organized opposition” ahead of the vote, Gould-Davies said.

Despite his assured victory next month, Putin still fears Western interference in the election and viewed Navalny as “an adversary manipulated by the West to undermine national and state interests,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

“He sincerely believes that the West would and will use the moment to undermine the stability and to afflict political damage to his campaign,” she wrote in a commentary. “That will push him to take an even more hawkish, more repressive approach to any hostile manifestation, which he may link to external attempts to interfere. This may specifically create a more restrictive approach to the media and social networks.”

Navalny, who died at age 47, emerged as a major threat more than a decade ago, playing a key role in galvanizing massive street protests against Putin’s rule in Moscow in 2011-2012 and running a successful campaign to expose government corruption.

For many Russians, Navalny was a powerful symbol of hope, Galeotti said, conveying even from his remote Arctic prison a vision of the “beautiful Russia of the future” — a slogan in defiance of the Kremlin’s message to Russians to “just survive, just keep your head down.”

In 2020, Navalny narrowly survived nerve agent poisoning in Siberia that he blamed on the Kremlin. He recovered in Germany but was immediately arrested upon his return in January 2021. He remained in custody ever since, convicted three times and handed a 19-year prison term on charges of extremism.

Putin didn’t comment on Navalny’s death and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed statements by Western leaders holding the Kremlin responsible as “outrageous and inadmissible.”

But Western leaders view any such comments from the Kremlin with the same suspicion they cast toward the death of mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash two months after his troops staged a brief rebellion against the Kremlin. The crash last August was widely seen as the Kremlin’s revenge for the mutiny, which marked the most serious challenge to Putin’s rule since his first election in 2000.

Just as with Prigozhin’s demise, Navalny’s death “shows how completely ruthless” Putin is, Gould-Davies said.

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Associated Press writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

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