On December 28th, the Russian Kremlin ordered Alexei Navalny’s immediate return from Germany for a hearing. Navalny, Putin’s primary opposition, is currently recovering in Berlin after his suspected poisoning in August. This petition was issued by Russia’s Federal Prison Service (FSIN), who claimed Navalny had been actively avoiding a three and a half-year prison sentence, which was previously suspended. If Navalny fails to return to Russia, Putin will deliver on his ultimatum to jail Navalny. Kira Yarmysh—Navalny’s spokeswoman—tweeted that “it was impossible for Navalny to return in time, that he was still convalescing after his poisoning, and accused the prison service of acting on orders from the Kremlin”.
On August 20th, Navalny fell unconscious on a flight from Siberia to Moscow and was rapidly airlifted to a Berlin hospital. Upon arrival, his heart rate registered at 33 BPM, his internal body temperature had dropped to 92.3 degrees Fahrenheit (33.5 C), and the hospital placed him in a medically induced coma. Independent studies by France, Sweden, and Berlin all discovered traces of Novichok, a potent Soviet nerve agent, in Navalny’s body, confirming accusations of poisoning.
The Russian government is known for using Novichok in previous assassination attempts despite its violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Russia has signed. Russia’s Kremlin has repeatedly denied all poisoning allegations. According to Putin, Navalny’s condition was caused by low blood sugar and metabolic imbalances, a conclusion that a Russian doctor corroborated. Despite this, traces of the poison were found in Navalny’s water bottle and body samples. However, experts believe that the Russian government tampered with the evidence, confiscating objects and manipulating samples before Navalny reached Germany. As a result, the case has been unsupported because of a lack of substantial evidence. Fortunately, Navalny has made a rapid recovery—he was released from the hospital on September 20th and reported asymptomatic on October 12th.
Alexei Navalny has risen to prominence throughout the past decade. He began his career as an anti-corruption blogger in Russia, using his platform to expose misconduct in the Kremlin by investigating public, open-source data. Since then, Navalny has created the Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK), which serves as Russia’s “only real political organization,” according to The New Yorker. Its YouTube channel is also the predominant source for alternative media coverage in Russia, where almost all digital information is government-controlled.
In recent years, Navalny has placed himself in direct opposition to President Vladimir Putin. His “Smart Voting” campaign strategically bolstered his support in Russia. He pinpointed the strongest candidates in local elections outside of Putin’s United Russia Party and encouraged citizens to consolidate their votes for the person. Before his poisoning, Navalny was in Serbia, carrying out efforts to bolster grassroots organizations and leaders. He has also run for multiple political positions, including the Russian presidency and mayor of Moscow, but lost all races due to corruption in Russia’s election process. For these reasons, Navalny poses an obvious threat to Putin and the Kremlin, leading to repeated accusations against him.
The crime alleged against Navalny in Putin’s most recent demand refers to a 2014 embezzlement charge against Navalny. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Navalny… had, among other things, used $4.78 million raised by his supporters to buy properties, pay for trips abroad, and cover his personal expenses.” Navalny believes the renewed investigation and charges are revenge for his lack of support and failure to die. The European Court of Human Rights has recognized this, deciding in 2018 that the charges against him are motivated by political interests.
In addition to this crime, Navalny has previously served sentences in jail and under house arrest, many of which have been protested by his supporters. FBK has also been plagued by legal challenges since its existence. Even Navalny supporters are frequently robbed, detained, or “sent to far-flung army bases to serve mandatory military service,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Now, Navalny and other Russian opposition advisors believe that the Kremlin’s new sentence is an active attempt to keep Navalny out of Russia, essentially removing him as a threat to Putin and the Russian government—Putin has even begun referring to Navalny as “the Berlin patient” in an attempt to make him politically irrelevant. Russia holds a long history of poisoning or assassinating political opponents, and Navalny’s case is not an isolated one. Despite these challenges and present danger, Navalny has repeatedly stated that he plans to return to Russia to continue his work, hoping to capitalize on discontent with Putin, Russia’s economy, and unrest related to COVID-19.
After his release, Navalny wasted no time investigating his own poisoning and trying to expose the Kremlin’s misdeeds. He first denied Russia’s request to investigate his case alongside Germany. Navalny also began probing open-data with the help of the research group, Bellingcat, to discover any evidence of assassination plans. In the process, Navalny made a phone call to an FSB agent involved in the attack, posing as a Russian Federal Security Officer. During the call, the agent admitted that Novichok was applied to Navalny’s underwear, and Navalny promptly released the call’s transcript to the public.
Since the poisoning, the international community has responded with outrage. NATO officials called for Russia to agree to an impartial investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg sent a message to the world stating that Navalny’s poisoning: “is not just an attack on an individual but it is also an attack on fundamental democratic rights. This is a blatant violation of international law and it requires an international response.”
After the OPCW’s October report confirmed Novichok use, the U.K. and E.U. imposed sanctions on six Russian officials and Russia’s State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology. The latter has continually developed chemical weapons rather than following its duty to destroy them. The sanctions both prohibit travel and freeze economic assets for the individuals. The United States, however, has refused to impose any punishment on Russia. Initially, Trump made no comment on the attack, allowing his inner circle to speak for him. A National Security Council spokesperson, John Ullyot, stated early on that the poisoning was “reprehensible” and that the U.S. would collaborate with its allies “wherever the evidence leads,” although Trump initially asserted that he had no proof of Russian involvement.
According to CNN, the U.S. State Department finally admitted on December 23rd that Russian security forces poisoned Navalny, agreeing with the OPCW’s findings. Regardless, President Trump has still not enacted any sanctions on Russia, once again calling into question how his personal relationship with Vladimir Putin may be affecting the administration’s actions.
Russia’s use of Novichok is just one example of its continued disregard for international law and norms. In 2020, Russia received a Freedom House score of 20/100, designating it “Not Free”. This score reflects blatant attacks on political rights and civil liberties throughout the country. Some of the most basic human freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion, and assembly are being threatened: recent crackdowns on Baptists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and legalized oppression of any groups deemed “extremist” remove a right to worship; an inhumane law which prohibits “public discussion of homosexuality” tramples self-expression; and restricted assembly rights, government surveillance, and state-controlled media silence any perceived threat to the government. Fair elections and government are also at risk in Russia, despite its definition as a democratic republic. Intimidation and violence at polling places are common to discourage political action, and the Kremlin and Putin’s United Russia party continue to gain power in spite of regional and local losses.
Additionally, a set of constitutional amendments proposed in the Summer of 2020 serve to further consolidate federal power in the hands of Vladimir Putin, echoing an authoritarian regime. One concerning change would allow Putin to modify presidential term limits and remain in power until 2036—the limit was already extended from four to six years in 2008. Leadership requirements would now demand candidates live in Russia for 25 continuous years, creating barriers for anyone with Western education or foreign ties. The new constitution also authorizes a presidential veto power over Parliament. Finally, new wording essentially obliterates Russia’s international commitments: “Decisions of interstate bodies adopted on the basis of provisions of international treaties of the Russian Federation in their interpretation, that contradicts the Constitution of the Russian Federation, are not subject to execution in the Russian Federation” (Atlantic Council). This is perhaps the most unsettling provision considering that Russia holds significant positions in global organizations, such as its seat on the United Nations Security Council, which awards it veto power. Joint global efforts may be threatened if Russia feels no obligation to its agreements and continually undermines international law.
Russia is repeatedly showing disdain for international authorities and norms, risking its prominent standing in many international organizations. The global community can no longer sit idly by and in fear of retaliation as Russia knowingly expands governmental power, oppresses minority groups, and attacks threatening individuals like Alexei Navalny. All global powers, including the U.S., must follow the E.U.’s lead and actively respond by imposing sanctions or pulling out of economic projects in the region to demonstrate that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated, especially if it affects other nearby countries. Since Putin and the Kremlin’s attempts to remove people from relevance are meant to maintain their own power and economic standing, the E.U., U.S., and other allies must show Russia that continued aggression will hurt, rather than help its global positioning. If non-compliance persists, international organizations may also need to reconsider Russia’s role and evaluate potential consequences.
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