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Between Navalny and Khashoggi
This is not about Navalny, but about Putin, Putinism, the use of chemical nerve agents disarmament and non-proliferation and — always — international law.
Both Alexei Navalny and Jamal Khashoggi were effective, high profile critics of dangerous authoritarian regimes. Navalny of Putin’s Russia; Khashoggi of the Saudi Arabia of the House of Saud. Navalny, before being imprisoned by the Russian government, was a lawyer and anti-corruption activist and Khashoggi was a respected journalist and permanent resident of the United States of America.
Here the similarities diverge. Jamal Khashoggi had the bad luck of being a highly effective critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salman and Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, during the administration of Donald Trump. Trump’s ties to the House of Saud were far stronger than any Trumpist commitment to human rights. He neither publicly chastised nor punished Saudi Arabia for the lies leading up to Khashoggi’s murder or for the murder itself. In fact, after the butchery was committed, Trump bragged to Bob Woodward – of The Washington Post, Khashoggi’s own paper – about saving Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ass. Charmed, I’m sure.
Navalny, by contrast, willfully walked into his imprisonment after Biden took office. And while Khashoggi was tragically lured, snared and butchered in a foreign land, Navalny seems to be leaning in towards his ultimate fate. He is methodically playing a multidimensional chess game with the great powers, standing up to Putin and forcing Biden out of his comfort zone realpolitik and sanctions and more into the sphere of international law and human rights. “Morally, the Biden Administration had to act, because the President ran on the promise of being tough on Russia,” Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker of the President’s slap-on-the-wrist sanctions on Russia and Saudi Arabia. “…But, both morally and legally, Biden is doing little more than the bare minimum.”
Navalny the Martyr?
Navalny, like Khashoggi, has been a thorn in Putin’s side for years before the Biden administration. He was poisoned under Trump’s watch, during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. Novichok — a Soviet era nerve agent — was used and is a particular favorite of Putin, the alchemist of Moscow, when dealing with dissidents. The official EU findings said as much when finding that such actions could occur “only with the consent of the presidential executive office,” i.e., Vladimir Putin. Trump, who has had a very strange relationship with Putin, remained silent on the report.
Navalny has been anything but silent. The recovery from the poisoning in Germany seemed to concentrate his efforts as well as accelerate his game plan. Navalny soon after leaving the German hosiptal released video of “Putin’s Palace” — his ill-gotten gains in the form of a grotesque residence — after Trump left had office. His arrest (January 17) seemed to precipitate Biden release of intelligence documents (February 26) related to Khashoggi’s death. Biden’s reaction to Saudi Arabia and Russia was regarded as weak by conservative critics, human rights critics and financial markets. “That approach was a disappointment to those who believe the Saudi crown prince deserves direct punishment for his role in Khashoggi’s murder, as it was to Navalny’s supporters,” Nic Wadhams wrote on Bloomberg. “On Tuesday, Russia’s ruble rebounded, erasing earlier declines, after the narrow scope of the U.S. and European Union penalties became clear.”
Navalny seeks to pressure Biden into making a moral-political judgement against Putin at the same time as escalating a showdown with Putin. Navalny has courageously placed himself between two great powers while physically detained at a Russian penal colony. He is at present in ill health and it is not sure if he will die in prison. Putin can only be properly construed under the category as “human rights averse.”
Navalny understandably regards his poisoner was particular contempt. “He can pretend to be a great politician, but he will go down in history as a poisoner,” Navalny said during his trial. “We had Alexander the Liberator, Yaroslav the Wise and now we will have Vladimir the Poisoner of Underpants.” Putin, borrowing from the sinister notebooks of the South African Boers during apartheid, actually poisoned Navalny’s undergarments while he was away at Tomsk.
Finally, this is not just about #Navalny. He is not just a martyr, if that is what he ultimately becomes. Navalny is a reminder that even the great powers are not immune to international law; the fate of Navalny is a referendum on “might makes right,” or that the internal affairs of nations are determined by the leader. One man alone, clearly, should not be the cause of dangerously destabilized relations between nuclear powers with millions of lives hanging in the balance. This is not about Navalny, but about Putin, Putinism, the use of chemical nerve agents disarmament and non-proliferation and — always — international law. Putin, in poisoning Navalny with Novichok, violated Russia’s commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention and thus violated the law of nations. If Russia can get away with killing Navalny in a manner not unlike how Saudi Arabia killed Jamal Khashoggi, in full view of the international community, then the world in Biden’s first 100 days will have tended more towards lawlessness than law.