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Alexei Navalny Remains a Sophie's Choice for Biden - 50143040498 5d13e607e5 b

Russian legal actions over the last two weeks against opposition leader Alexei Navalny reflect an emerging reality in the always obscure world of Russian politics: this charismatic politician, as a Russian security analyst recently said, is “perhaps the most formidable adversary Putin has faced.”  

However, despite his growing popularity, Navalny’s future as a Russian political activist is bleak. As one of his close confidants confided recently: “Navalny will be in jail as long as Putin is alive.”  

I’d add: or until Putin decides to kill him sooner. 

Broader geopolitical questions loom: first, where do the protests take the Russian Federation in the months ahead?  And second, what does President Joe Biden do as Alexei Navalny languishes in Russian prisons? 

On the first question, despite the attractiveness of the Navalny anti-corruption message, and of Navalny personally, the rallies and protests (now at least temporarily suspended) are unlikely to take Russia very far from its kleptocratic, authoritarian status quo. 

The near-term political target for Navalny and his “Smart Vote” campaign (i.e., vote for anybody not part of the Putin-friendly United Russia Party and its allies) is the September Duma elections: embarrass the ruling party by forcing an “official” vote tally that’s so wildly off the mark that protestors return to the streets.

But then? The reality of the omnipresent Russian state security apparatus intrudes. For a preview of how that will look - and is already looking, with arrests by the thousands in just the few weeks since Navalny’s return - consider the Minsk and Belarusian scene from last fall: despite unprecedented month-after-month turn-out at rallies and protests, President Lukashenko remains in power. So will Putin’s party this fall, despite what will be an obnoxiously fraudulent vote count this September.

And THEN? Russian presidential elections in 2024. Even though the Russian economy is forecast to stagnate into the 2030’s, with consumer confidence and demographics in long-term decline, Putin will win; and he’ll remain the virtual president-for-life.

Navalny’s supporters of course are hoping for a change; but with an inability to convert a loose “movement” into a coherent political opposition, and facing overwhelming security repression, they’ll emerge deeply disappointed.   

And on Biden’s possible actions in the weeks ahead? They’ll be a test of his strategic vision and priorities.  

The president will keep pressing on human rights and the Navalny jailing travesty; but he also wants progress on issues that require Russia’s cooperation: the “Open Skies” Treaty, Iran (Russia is a P5+1 party), North Korea (Russia is a “6-party” negotiating member), climate, next-phase nuclear arms control, amongst others. Putin won’t let Biden have the best of both worlds: i.e., stand up strongly for Alexei but secure Russian cooperation internationally.

The strategic path ahead for Biden and key members of his national security team (Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan especially) is a narrow and dangerous one.

Putin has indicated publicly that he wants Iran to return to the nuclear deal (“JCPOA”), as of course does the president; and the agreement to extend for five years the New Start U.S.-Russia nuclear deal was encouraging.

But it’s hard to envision progress in other areas if Biden and his team – as Congress is encouraging and key aides are suggesting – seize assets of Russian oligarchs and Putin allies under the Magnitsky Act, or press the Germans to cancel the NORDSTREAM II gas pipeline project with Moscow. 

The question: is a more paranoid Putin and Russian ruling elite also more risk-acceptant, i.e., more willing to launch another foreign adventure, as they did in Crimea, the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, or Syria?

Although a new adventure is probably unlikely over the near term, it’s why strategic analysts of all stripes are applauding Biden’s and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s decision to revisit the last-minute Trump order to withdraw 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany.

Fortunately, President Biden understands: U.S. troops on the continent are a low premium to pay on a strategic insurance policy against Putin misbehavior. 

A quick final comment: anyone interested in trying to understand the magnetic appeal of Navalny should take a quick look at the “Putin Palace” video on YouTube.

The full video runs for well over an hour; but just glancing at segments will reflect the charisma of Navalny (he is the narrator), his humor, and his unique brand of Russian cynicism; the video is topical, and it’s revealing of one of the most intriguing international personalities of the new year.