By Trudy Rubin
When President Joe Biden agreed with a newscaster that Vladimir Putin was "a killer," I initially thought it a tactical error.
Not that the Russian leader isn't a killer, having sent agents to murder dissidents abroad and to poison opposition leader Alexei Navalny at home ― not to mention the murders of scores of other Russian activists and journalists on his watch.
Yet I thought it preferable to confront Putin in private, letting him know that, unlike Donald Trump, Biden and U.S. allies rejected the Russian's fake denials. That way, necessary business could still be done with Moscow, but in a no-nonsense, no-illusions fashion.
However, it appears that Putin ― despite his put-on pique at Biden's "killer" label ― doesn't care if the world sees him kill Navalny. As soon as the opposition leader returned home from lifesaving treatment in Berlin, he was jailed on trumped-up charges and sent to one of Russia's most notorious prisons. Having fallen seriously ill again, denied medical care, he has gone on a hunger strike and could die in prison.
Putin clearly believes he can kill opposition leaders with impunity, just as China's Xi Jinping believes he can crush Hong Kong democracy and imprison a million Uyghurs with impunity. U.S. and European sanctions haven't stopped either leader in their push to prove authoritarian systems are tougher than democracies.
Navalny's present peril provides a warning that democracies must find a more effective way of pushing back.
This 44-year-old Russian anticorruption fighter, who has amassed a grassroots network of followers across the country via social media, has been locked up in the maximum security Pokrov IK-2 penal colony known for its harsh treatment.
Labeled a "flight risk" ― despite the fact he voluntarily returned from Germany ― Navalny is awakened every 90 minutes by guards with flashlights. This for someone still suffering the effects of being poisoned by a variant banned Soviet-era nerve toxin, who is now unable to feel his right leg and suffers severe pain.
"I have the right to call a doctor and get medicine. Neither of which I am given, stupidly," he said in an Instagram post in his name. He reported he had received six reprimands during two weeks in prison for violations such as getting up 10 minutes early or wearing a T-shirt to meet his lawyer.
Such reprimands mean Navalny can be denied early release, and can be sent to a freezing solitary cell with brutal regulations, according to Yevgenia Albats, an independent Russian journalist and friend of Navalny's.
"It's not about justice. It's about torture," Albats told me by phone from Moscow. "They [the Kremlin] feel they can do what they want. They killed people all around Europe and Putin got away with it. World leaders say harsh words, but nothing happened."
And in the meantime, an ailing Navalny could die.
The opposition leader apparently enraged the Russian president with brilliantly produced YouTube videos, including one about a vast Black Sea coastal palace built for Putin complete with drone footage of the mansion. The video garnered more than 90 million views.
And the Russian leader must fear Navalny's appeal to the younger generation, even though the political activist has been banned from running for any office, and thousands of his supporters have been jailed. Doctors who first treated him in Russia when he was poisoned keep on dying.
The attack on Navalny is reminiscent of the unsolved murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, cut down by bullets in 2015 right in front of the Kremlin.
And Navalny's plight recalls the awful death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for an international capital fund who discovered a massive tax fraud by Russian Interior Ministry officials. He was arrested in Moscow by those very officials, and allowed to die in 2009 in prison in agonizing pain from acute pancreatitis, having been refused medical care.
What is so shocking about Navalny's case is the apparent sense of impunity in the Kremlin. So-called Magnitsky sanctions for human rights violations, passed by the U.S. Congress in the murdered lawyer's name, have not deterred the Kremlin, nor have economic sanctions on Russia changed Putin's behavior ― on assassinations, or hacking U.S. institutions, or pulling troops out of Crimea or eastern Ukraine.
Given Putin's neuralgia about Navalny, it's not likely more sanctions would win his release. When I asked Albats if Navalny would go into exile in order to save his life, her reply was a swift "No." He returned from Germany knowing the risk, she said.
But it is vital for Biden and NATO allies to make clear to Putin that Navalny's death would be a red line. That alone might prevent his murder in prison and gain him vital medical care.
And the treatment of Navalny is a warning that the United States and Europe must find a way, together, and beyond sanctions, to convince Putin he can't mock international norms with impunity. Perhaps Navalny's case will finally persuade Germany to accept freezing construction on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia.
As for the United States, the biggest imperative, as Biden knows, is for the country to rebuild its infrastructure and reinvigorate its technology ― so autocrats will take it seriously once more.
Trudy Rubin (email@example.com.) is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. This article was distributed by Tribune Content Agency.