As Alexei Navalny is moved to hospital, a new approach to Russia is needed

Sean O'Grady
·5-min read
<p>Alexei Navalny with his family in a  Berlin hospital last September while being treated for novichok poisoning</p> (Alexei Navalny/Instagram/AFP)

Alexei Navalny with his family in a Berlin hospital last September while being treated for novichok poisoning

(Alexei Navalny/Instagram/AFP)

Does the Russian state want to kill jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny – before, that is, he manages to kill himself through his hunger strike? It would certainly appear that way.

Navalny, denied medical care from his own team of doctors, and subjected to terrible abuse in prison, has been transferred to a prison hospital. Things must be bad for the Russian authorities to show even such nominal regard for his survival, and so it is. Blood tests show he is dangerously ill, with severe malfunction in his kidneys, and he could have a heart attack at any moment.

This is quite apart from being poisoned with novichok by informal agents of the Kremlin, a dose of Covid he suffered, the risk of TB – rife in Russian jails – and spinal problems caused by his incarceration. Apparently, he has been given “vitamin therapy” by the prison medics. God knows what lies behind that Stalin-esque euphemism.

The remarkable thing is that no one seems particularly surprised that the nearest thing to a leader of the opposition in Russia is being finished off in this way. The Russian authorities seem at liberty to assassinate internal and external enemies at will, to threaten their neighbours, to wage cyber warfare on their enemies, and to annex the territory of independent nations as they wish.

The world seems unwilling – or unable – to stop them. It is even stranger because Vladimir Putin makes no secret of the perceived grievances that Russia holds against the west, of its sense of betrayal about the breakup of the Soviet Union 30 years ago – and the humiliation and chaos of the Yeltsin years.

Everyone knows, in other words, that Putin is nostalgic about the grand status and respect that imperial Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics commanded, when its leaders were able to strike fear in Washington, and its scientific achievements and space programme were the envy of the west.

Russia once controlled – occupied – territory from Japan to Austria, and across central Asia as far as the borders with India and Pakistan. Now that territory is under the umbrella of the EU, Nato and hostile regimes. In truth, Putin wants it all back again – mad as that may seem.

When Joe Biden was asked recently if Putin was a “killer”, he agreed, and he was right. A cold one, who seems content to soak up any amount of sanctions and domestic and international protests as he goes about the business – as he sees it – of restoring Russia to its rightful place in the world.

Thus far, he has terrorised Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, and cynically manipulated the wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan. He has persecuted and killed his opponents, from Salisbury to Vladivostok, because he accurately judges that he can get away with it.

He judged that he could permit his shadowy agents to blow up an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic – a Nato member – and neither be caught nor punished, beyond the expulsion of some Russian diplomats.

Most shamefully for us, Putin was allowed to skip right across President Obama’s red line and help the Assad regime in Syria bomb its own people with chemical weapons. Does anyone think much would happen to Putin personally if Navalny dies in a ward in a Russian prison hospital? It is a calculation he is going through constantly in his own mind, and given the weakness of the west, he will continue to test the limits of the west’s patience.

In a sense, the time for standing up to Putin is over. We have, after all, attempted to do so too many times, and failed. Perhaps we should try appeasement. If the west is really not interested in pushing back at Russian aggression with equally bold moves, it should give up the pretence that it is serious about taming an increasingly feral Putin.

If the west, for example, will acquiesce in the occupation of parts of Ukraine; if it won’t protect Ukraine’s remaining sovereignty with guarantees, or offer it full Nato membership – then it should stop making a fool of itself and pretending otherwise. It only feeds the bear.

A new approach to Russia is needed, which makes sense of this unwillingness to confront Putin. That is why the planned summit between Biden and Putin might be the breakthrough that is required; the mind of bold diplomacy that could thaw relations and persuade the Russians that they have nothing to fear from the west, and that murdering the leader of the opposition won’t do anything for Russians or for Russia’s place in the world – or, indeed, for Putin.

The spirit of the “end of history” that prevailed three decades ago needs to be revived, and Russia once again offered a partnership with the west in solving its economic problems and security needs. That means the west cannot again neglect Russia’s interests and concerns.

The human rights and cultural heritage of Russian minorities in the Balkan states and elsewhere, for example, should be respected. Russia should be encouraged to scale back its nuclear rearmament with parallel gestures by Nato. Both sides have an active interest in achieving a balance of power in the Middle East, and ending the unstable, unpredictable proxy wars in places such as Yemen that neither side can ever “win”. Russia and the west can cooperate on terrorism and climate change.

Putin might be able to see that – or maybe not, because Putin has never been so unreliable before.

The challenge for Biden is to convince Putin that he has more to gain than lose from a rapprochement with the west, and to avert a full-on Cold War. At the moment, western policy offers him no incentives – and precious few penalties – to change his ways.

With the curiously submissive Donald Trump gone, many of Putin’s assumptions and calculations have been thrown into the air, and there is an opportunity for a reset. A summit is worth a shot.

Given that the death of Navalny in the run-up to it would postpone the first US-Russia conference in three years, the prospect of an honest conversation with Biden might even be enough to save his life and liberty. Navalny could be released by President Putin as an act of goodwill and on humanitarian grounds, presented to the world as an act of magnanimous statesmanship. You wouldn’t put it past Putin.

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