Bolton: Navalny’s murder demonstrates Putin’s confidence

By John Bolton

Alexei Navalny’s death in a Russian prison camp elicited widespread condemnation, and Western leaders demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin be held accountable. A fierce Putin critic, Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021 after recovering from a 2020 attempted assassination by poisoning that was almost certainly ordered by the Kremlin. He was immediately jailed. President Joe Biden said Friday, “Make no mistake: Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death … What has happened to Navalny is yet more proof of Putin’s brutality.”

Of course, there are always exceptions. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump declined to blame Russia’s government for the unsuccessful poisoning plot, citing insufficient information. Since Navalny’s death, Trump has said nothing.

Unfortunately, Western leaders are often quick to express outrage but not quick to do anything about it. In a 2021 meeting in Geneva, Biden warned Putin that Russia would face “devastating” consequences if Navalny died in prison. Asked Friday what those consequences would be, Biden answered lamely, “That was three years ago. In the meantime, they faced a hell of a lot of consequences. They’ve lost and/or had wounded over 350,000 Russian soldiers. They’ve made it into a position where they’ve been subjected to great sanctions across the board. And we’re contemplating what else could be done.” Obviously, however, the “consequences” Biden mentioned flowed from Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, not Navalny’s treatment or his demise.

We may never know the actual causes of Navalny’s death. The most benign explanation is that it was hastened by the 2020 failed poisoning, compounded by years of harsh prison conditions. However, video of Navalny earlier last week showed him in apparent health and good spirits. No one really believes that “accidents” happen to high-profile prisoners in the Russian gulag. And the decision to eliminate such a prominent thorn in the Kremlin’s side would have to come from Putin himself.

But why now? Some Westerners immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that Navalny’s death “underscores the weakness and rot of the system Putin has built.” In fact, killing Navalny is evidence that Putin feels back on top, confident in his rule, untroubled about either domestic or international pushback.

Putin sealed Yevgeny Prigozhin’s fate last year for the effrontery of questioning Putin’s handling of the Ukraine war. Whatever political dissent was then roiling, the massive Russian security services appears now to have dissipated. The “siloviki,” the “men of power,” are back in line. As for democratic opponents, they are either hiding or in exile. Putin is not losing sleep.

Internationally, things look brighter for Putin than they have in several years, both geo-strategically and specifically in Ukraine. Navalny’s murder signals Putin is confident that he holds the upper hand. Trump continues threatening U.S. withdrawal from NATO, adding recently “I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members not meeting their commitments to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense.

Biden criticized Trump for egging on NATO’s principal adversary, but Putin is conducting his own disinformation campaign on Trump’s behalf. Asked his thoughts on Biden and Trump, Putin described Biden as “more experienced, predictable, an old-school politician.” Putin must have enjoyed this head-fake, which Trump was too foolish to leave alone, responding it was “a great compliment, actually.”

Putin also made a fool of Tucker Carlson for his recent lickspittle interview, mocking him for a “lack of sharp questions,” a rare case where Western observers would agree with Putin. Offers to negotiate on Ukraine during the interview may have been a feint, given repeated Kremlin rejections of negotiations until it achieved its objectives in Ukraine.

The tides are unfortunately flowing in Russia’s favor. Ukraine’s 2023 spring offensive gained little ground, and potentially important locations such as Avdiivka, hotly contested since the war began, are now falling to Russia. Just opening talks with Kyiv could benefit Moscow, freezing the frontlines into a new Russia-Ukraine border, giving Russia’s military much-needed time to regroup and regain what little fighting edge it initially brought to the war. A pause could also permit China to continue extending its economic and political influence over Russia, which is hardly in America’s interest.

The most immediate response to Navalny’s murder and Ukraine’s critical needs is Congress waking up to the strategic imperative of Washington aiding Kyiv. Biden has trickled aid in piecemeal, non-strategically, for two years, thereby allowing Russia to fight the war to a stalemate. Biden has been continually deterred by fears of Russia launching a “wider war,” although he has never explained where Russian capabilities to wage such a war are hidden.

U.S. politics have added to the practical difficulties of sensibly providing weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, but Navalny’s tragedy should be a wake-up call, especially for Republicans. We are not providing charity for Ukraine, but acting to protect core American interests. Paraphrasing what Donald Rumsfeld used to insist: “Don’t foul this up.”

John Bolton was national security adviser to President Trump from 2018 to 2019 and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006. He held senior State Department posts in 1981-83, 1989-93 and 2001-2005.

This article was first published in The Hill on February 19, 2024. Click here to read the original article.


Ambassador John Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. He served as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 2005-2006. He was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security from 2001 to 2005. In the Reagan Administration, he was an Assistant Attorney General.