It’s time we stop treating Putin like a normal leader

"Russians can’t hold their government accountable for Putin's crimes, but the U.S. and its allies can at least not reward the Kremlin by treating him like a normal leader."



September 4, 2020 - 1:44 PM

Germany confirmed Wednesday what the world already assumed: Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who lies in serious condition in a Berlin hospital, was poisoned — specifically, with the nerve agent Novichok.

Russia claims it had no involvement in Mr. Navalny’s illness, but the U.S. and Europe should insist on an independent investigation. “In 2020, poisoning Navalny with Novichok is exactly the same as leaving an autograph at the crime scene. Like this: V.V Putin,” tweeted Leonid Volkov, a close associate of Mr. Navalny.

The nerve agent was developed in Russia’s Soviet era, and only state actors can access it. The U.S. sanctioned Russia after the same type of poison was used against former Russian spy and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on British soil in 2018.

Mr. Navalny was “meant to be silenced,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday. The Kremlin fears the spread of recent protests in Russia’s Far East and in neighboring Belarus. Russia’s opposition can’t win under its rigged system, but Mr. Navalny has found a way to dilute the ruling United Russia party’s influence and undermine its legitimacy.

His “Smart Voting” system helps rally disgruntled citizens behind the candidates most likely to defeat United Russia’s representatives. Last year this strategy helped flip a number of seats in local elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Mr. Navalny has deployed it in advance of September’s regional elections, where some 40 million Russians are expected to vote. His online videos have also exposed the corruption and lavish lifestyles of the ruling elite. No wonder someone wanted Mr. Navalny dead.

The U.S. has a few options to support Mr. Navalny. It could invoke the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act or the Magnitsky Act to impose financial sanctions on those responsible. The U.S. and its allies can also expel Russian diplomats as they did after the Skripal poisoning.

Then there is the matter of Germany’s cognitive dissonance — and Donald Trump’s. Even as she exposes the assassination attempt on Mr. Navalny, Mrs. Merkel is proceeding with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would make Germany more dependant on Russian energy. And Mr. Trump says he wants to bring Vladimir Putin back into the G-7 club.

Opponents of the Kremlin have a way of ending up poisoned, including opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza and defectors Alexander Perepilichny and Alexander Litvinenko. Russians can’t hold their government accountable for these crimes, but the U.S. and its allies can at least not reward the Kremlin by treating Mr. Putin like a normal leader.

— The Wall Street Journal