Alexey Navalny’s arrest upon his return to Russia on Sunday has handed newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden his first challenge from the Kremlin in office.

Navalny had spent the last five months in Germany where he was recovering from being poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. Almost immediately after he returned to Russia, Navalny was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after being redirected inexplicably from his original destination of Vnukovo Airport where supporters and journalists gathered to greet him. After being detained, Navalny was tried not in court, but in a hastily converted police station where the presiding judge ordered him to be held for 30 days.

For President Biden, Navalny’s arrest is an early test for his administration to distinguish itself on Russia from its predecessor.

Throughout Donald Trump’s term in office, Russia has been something of a phantom haunting the administration from the beginning. From the start, it was under investigation for possibly colluding with the Kremlin to win in November 2016 and later for abetting Moscow by firing FBI Director James Comey for refusing to end the probe. Trump was eventually cleared of any criminal collusion, but the idea was implanted in his mind that any association Russia was just a pretext for his opponents to sabotage him politically.

The administration did take several strong actions against Russia. It lifted the ban on lethal military aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists in its east, took numerous Russian hackers online, and Russian intelligence officers and oligarchs were hit with sanctions or indictments without Trump interfering. Regardless, Trump was always reluctant and consistently downplayed any Russian threat against the U.S. until the last day of his presidency.

Trump’s instinctive bristling at any mention of Russia was on full display when reporters needled him on whether he believed Moscow had poisoned Navalny. Given the chance to condemn Russia, Trump denied there was any evidence that linked the Russian security services to Navalny’s hospitalization. This came only two days after his own State Department called German lab reports on the use of Novichok “very credible.”

In comparison, Biden already struck a much emphatic tone by accusing Russia and Vladimir Putin of being behind the attempted assassination.

“The mode of attack leaves no doubt as to where the responsibility lies — the Russian state,” read a statement released by Biden’s campaign the day the Novichok report emerged. “It is the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent.”

Ian Kelly, a retired U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Georgia, suggested that the strength of the Biden team in forging a Russia policy will come through a coherent foreign policy apparatus.

“If you judge by their track record in government, the national security appointees, I think what you’ll see is kind of a marriage of the White House and the policy of the national security apparatus,” Kelly said in a phone call with New Europe.

Kelly, who served into the Trump administration until 2018 and is now a diplomat-in-residence at Northwestern University, described Trump’s silence on Russia as disconnected from a unified U.S. government response towards its aggressive behavior. He suggested that the Biden administration may be more in-sync in carving out a consistent position vis-a-vis Moscow.

They have already shown a level of consistency before arriving into their positions. Shortly after Navalny was arrested on January 17, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called for his release and for the perpetrators of his poisoning to be held accountable.

“The Kremlin’s attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard,” Sullivan tweeted.

Asked whether this reflected the view of the then-incoming Biden administration, transition spokesman Ned Price said it stood by Sullivan’s tweet in an email to New Europe.

On January 19, Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, echoed the new president’s view on Navalny’s poisoning when he remarked that it was “extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man.”

“The attempts to silence that voice by silencing Mr. Navalny is something that we strongly condemn,” Blinken declared at his nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, adding that a response to the attack would be “very high” on Biden’s agenda.

On his second day in office, the Biden administration made its first official statement that showed its readiness to confront and work with Russia where interests align.

“Even as we work with Russia to advance US interests, so too we work to hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on January 21. She then announced that Biden ordered an assessment into several serious Russian actions including “its use of chemical weapons against opposition leader Alexey Navalny”.

In Russia, there has been a tepid openness to work with the new administration based on low expectations. Before congratulating the new president, Putin described U.S.-Russia relations as “already ruined” so he saw no difference in Biden’s victory after being asked why he refused to congratulate him.

His tone shifted somewhat at his annual press conference in December when he described Biden as an “experienced person” and said Russia will “wait and see” how they could work with his team, particularly on arms control.

Any willingness to consider cooperation could end up being short-lived if Biden mounts a serious stand over Navalny. Tatiana Stanovaya, CEO of Moscow-based analysis firm R.Politik, suggested that doing so would play into the fears of Putin and his circle of spies who would see this as tantamount to interference in Russian domestic affairs. To them, Navalny represents not only a political challenge but an enemy that needs to be crushed.

“Navalny also embodies a collective Western threat; an intention to destroy Russia that deserves a demonstrative response,” said Stanovaya.

Stanovaya highlighted that the special service leaders, known as the siloviki, maintain Putin’s trust and share his wariness of the West’s championing of the Russian oppositionist. Even if other members of his elite may question whether the current approach to the “non-systemic opposition” actually contributes to stability, they have little room to challenge it.

A still image taken from a handout video posted by Kira Yarmysh, the press-secretary of Alexey Navalny, on Twitter shows Russian opposition leader during his detention by officers of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, January 17, 2021. EPA-EFE//KIRA YARMYSH

In an ironic twist, the attempt on Navalny’s life may have proved their point by boosting his stature as the lead resistor against Putin. Ilya Zaslavsky, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C. based nonprofit Free Russia Foundation, said that by being sent abroad for treatment, Navalny was catapulted into the international arena and came home with more recognition as the face of the anti-Putin opposition.

“Undoubtedly, he is recognized as the Russian opposition leader,” said Zaslavsky. “If they do anything to him, the stakes are higher now.”

While recovering in Germany, Navalny was visited by Chancellor Angela Merkel in his hospital and later testified at the European Parliament where he called for sanctions against Russia’s oligarchs. Prior to his return to Russia, Navalny shared through a colleague a list of wealthy Russians who should be targeted.

Since his re-arrest, European leaders echoed Navalny’s call and the EU parliament adopted a resolution calling for tougher sanctions against Russia and its elites.

The U.S. Congress has also built-up an appetite for responding to Navalny’s poisoning. In both the House and Senate, members of Congress drafted bipartisan resolutions while issuing appeals to act that went ignored by Trump.

Kelly, the retired ambassador, said this is an area where Biden could score a quick bipartisan victory.

“They’re going to have to look for initiatives that will be bipartisan and this should be a fairly easy one,” he said.

Despite this space to act, important questions remain. The most immediate ones are how far Biden is ready to go and how much will Putin retaliate.

“The response will be different but the question is how substantive or deep it will be,” said Zaslavsky. He does not believe the authorities will try again any time soon to seriously harm Navalny, but insists that if it does so again it will “force America’s hand.”

Members of the Russian opposition say that they would like to see the U.S. go after the Putin regime’s riches. Vladimir Kara-Murza, who himself was poisoned twice by Russian agents and who testified alongside Navalny at the European Parliament, said the U.S. should remain firm in protecting democratic norms.

“It’s only for Russians to bring democracy to Russia,” Kara-Murza told TIME. The activist pointed to legislation like the Global Magnitsky Act as tools to enforce these norms and insisted “all that’s needed is political will.”

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin speak during talks in Moscow in March 2011 when the former served as vice president and the latter as prime minister of their respective countries. EPA-EFE//MAXIM SHIPENKOV

So far, the Kremlin has waved off Western demarches as unjust interference in domestic affairs.

After Sullivan called for Navalny’s release, Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, shot back.

“Respect international law, do not encroach on national legislation of sovereign states and address problems in your own country,” she wrote on Facebook.

Appeals to respect civil society from the U.S. take on a tone of encouraging a so-called colour revolution in Putin’s ears and those of his conspiratorial-minded siloviki. It was during Biden’s last stint in government during the Obama administration when Putin famously accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of instigating the Bolotnaya Square protests after she criticized election irregularities in his 2011 re-election.

It did not take long after Navalny was arrested for Russian authorities to begin detaining some of his allies. This follows months of tightening the space for civil society through expanding the definition of who is considered a “foreign agent”, cracking down on social media before scheduled protests, and shielding the identity of security officers.

R.Politik’s Stanovaya cautions that the war-like lens through which Putin’s trusted circle would interpret any major American action may be bitterly resisted. If Navalny’s poisoning had the effect of boosting his stature further, a response in his name risks empowering those most paranoid about his rise.

“For Putin, internal affairs are the question of sovereignty – it must be protected from any foreign influence or interference,”  Stanovaya told New Europe. “The more severe the West responds, the more beneficial it becomes [for the siloviki].”

Zaslavsky disagrees that empowering the siloviki should be seen as any deterrence to Biden and that any watered-down response will only serve as appeasement. He insists that past American resolve has been key in taming Putin’s aggression at home and abroad.

“The truth is siloviki thugs are already fully in power, on the security council and in other key places,” he said. “The only language this mafia circle understands is genuine strength.”


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