Russia continues to add to their portrait of inhibitors of free speech and open and fair politics as politician, and noted Putin critic Alexei Navalny was arrested and is undergoing judicial procedures that could see him jailed for up to three and a half years. This news comes as Navalny recently returned from Germany after a lengthy medical stint while being treated for a nerve agent attack which Navalny believes was executed at the discretion of the Kremlin; this has been wholly rejected by the Kremlin. Navalny’s detention has led to protests that Reuters reports was in excess of 5,300 people calling for his release and as a broader demonstration of the frustration caused by the lack of free speech and skewed political landscape. Reuters further reported that United States officials have criticized Russia for these actions and have tossed around the idea of sanctioning Russia which would thus inhibit their economic capabilities. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded to these loose threats, saying that they are not prepared to be influenced by American criticism and will continue their course of action surrounding Navalny.
While Navalny has been a critic of Putin prior to 2019, his organization and constituents were labelled as a shell acting in the interest of foreign agents in 2019. The law used to label Navalny in this light has often been used by the Kremlin to suppress critics through a “legal” lens, although the basis for these laws is politicized at best and oppressive at worst. Of the 5,300 protesters, Reuters reports that over eighty, primarily journalists, were detained and now have criminal cases opened against them. This is on top of aggressive and unnecessary enforcement measures being taken on peaceful protests which the Kremlin denies, stating they were necessary to restore Covid-19 distancing protocols in response to unsanctioned gatherings; however the international community is widely recognizing the action taken as egregious and forceful on top of unnecessary to begin with.
While Navalny is serving his 30 day jail term before trial, his allies are drafting letters to the U.S., among other countries, asking for support and even sanctions to punish the Kremlin for their more-than-likely actions against free speech. While it is important, crucial even, for democratic nations to hold superpowers such as Russia accountable for objectively non-democratic actions, it is also important to not punish those who are not at fault for the actions of their government. These sanctions would almost certainly be felt by the general populous of Russia who are as upset, if not even more critical of their government. This would in effect leave the people that foreign nations are trying to help at more of a disadvantage, rather than, if no action were taken at all.
Furthermore, the rhetoric by the Kremlin in regard to, first, the nerve attack on Navalny and now the rhetoric surrounding the jailing of Navalny is despicable at best. The audacity for the Kremlin to deny the use of nerve agent attacks time after time is beyond the realm of coincidence and now needs to be considered as open attacks on free speech. Essentially, the Kremlin tried to take Navalny’s life in a concerted and premeditated attack, and since that has failed, they now seek to suppress his voice by unjustly jailing him. While this is far from the first time this series of events has happened to Russians critical of Putin, it will not be the last. Instead of the U.S. acting unilaterally trying to punish the Kremlin, it would be more beneficial to bring these concerns to a public forum so that punishment can be ubiquitously executed by a myriad of states. This would do more to set an example than simply one state acting on their lonesome.