Brief # 109 Foreign Policy

The Many Important US Foreign Policy Questions Raised by Alexei Navalny

By Will Solomon

May 4,2021


The saga of Alexei Navalny continues to play out in Russia. Navalny, the dissident anti-corruption activist, was jailed on January 17, after returning to Russia from Germany, and ultimately sentenced to over two and a half years in prison. He was in Germany recuperating from what appears to be an attempting poisoning by the Russian government.

Navalny is a popular and controversial figure in Russia and is increasingly well-known abroad. For the last several years, his profile and stature have grown in Russia, as he’s become the most prominent anti-Putin voice in the country. His movement largely centers on “anti-corruption,” and his exposes—like this recent one on Putin’s apparent luxury retreat on the Black Sea coast—are extremely popular in Russia. He’s also become a heroic figure in the West for his strident opposition to Putin.

Now imprisoned, and until recently on a hunger strike in likely poor prison conditions, as his organization is shut down—Navalny remains a focal point for opposition to Putin, while in a precarious position himself.


Navalny’s position as focal point for opposition to Putin over the last several years is unique. With this in mind, it’s important to consider his background and program, which obviously both have bearing if he is to serve as an alternative to Putin—and for Westerners to better understand him.

First, Navalny’s political posture has ostensibly evolved, but he has in the past been associated with xenophobic and racist Russian nationalist movements. While he appears to have partially distanced himself from aspects of this past, he still remains nationalistic in some aspect of his orientation.

This might be claimed as opportunistic; perhaps Navalny hoped, or hopes, to build as wide a coalition as possible in opposition to the regime. But that’s not exactly encouraging, if the main alternative to Putin can only do so by demagogically whipping up or endorsing anti-immigrant sentiment. While there is considerable debate over how much his views have evolved, this should not be blithely dismissed.

Same for his policy program: it basically doesn’t exist. While Navalny has become known as an anti-corruption crusader, he has not articulated much of an alternative policy program to the Putin regime, so much as opposed that regime’s corruption. That corruption is brazen, and important to expose—but corruption exists in many forms, and is rampant throughout Russia. This vagueness in orientation also somewhat downplays the brutal history of neoliberalism in Russia, and the devastating, Western-backed privatization that destroyed the country in the 1990s—leading to a precipitous drop in life expectancy in that country, among other disasters—a rapaciousness to which Putin’s regime is very much a reaction, and result.

This said, it is important to recognize that Navalny’s popularity demonstrates widespread discontent with the Putin regime, at least among some sectors—and again among some sectors, a presumed desire for a more democratic Russia.

Ultimately, this raises perhaps the most important question for Americans: how should the United States respond? The US government has largely been supportive of Navalny’s efforts and has criticized his recent treatment; the Biden administration notably declared that his death in prison would merit serious consequences. While recovering in Germany, Navalny met with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has also expressed support.

But Western states should tread carefully, for several reasons. First, it would be dishonest to deny that American and Western support is not opportunistic. To the extent Navalny has “pro-Western” policies, they are perhaps seen as favorable to Western corporations who wish to further access Russian markets. But again, Putin’s presidency and Russia today are in many ways a reaction to the dramatic liberalization of the Russian economy in the 1990s; US meddling typically does no favors, and the brazenness of it in the 90s (see this Time Magazine cover advertising American support for Yeltsin’s reelection campaign in 1996) was widely seen as exploitative and cruel—and ultimately probably harmful for American interests and international cooperation.

Second, the conception of “human rights” as weaponized for purposes of international diplomacy rings increasingly hollow. It is not a stretch to say that the horrific problems of domestic policing in the United States render human rights criticisms of Navalny’s treatment somewhat hypocritical. This should not necessarily mean that the US and Western countries shouldn’t raise human rights issues. But it does suggest that the ineffective means of redressing or reforming these problems in the United States—coupled with support for regimes that are equivalently or more repressive than Putin’s, like Israel’s occupation in Palestine, or the Gulf monarchies—means that American criticisms will appear increasingly vacuous until applied consistently.

Finally—while a more democratic Russia (like a more democratic United States, frankly) is desirable, the Biden administration must be careful to deal with the current Russian regime on urgent, contemporary issues: climate change, nuclear proliferation, the conflict in Ukraine. As such: Navalny shouldn’t be abandoned, and he is an important figure, and the development of his movement ought to be closely monitored by the US. A universally-applied rubric of human rights is a good thing. But we must be conscientious of the cynical way in which support for human rights is weaponized internationally, particularly with regards to Russia—and we must be conscious of the need for sober diplomacy in a world as volatile as the present one.

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