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John Sexton / Gavel Media

Death of Alexei Navalny - What This Means for U.S.-Russia Relations

On Feb. 16, Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, died at 47 years old of mysterious circumstances while imprisoned in a penal colony in the Arctic. Navalny’s family was told that the cause of his death was “sudden death syndrome,” a term loosely encompassing various cardiac syndromes. 

Many point their fingers at Putin and leaders of the United Russia party as the perpetrators of his death. Navalny established multiple anti-corruption projects, such as RosPil and the Foundation for Fighting Corruption, which sought to expose Russia’s ruling party for their unfair acquisition and maintenance of power. 

Throughout his career, Navalny was accused of embezzlement numerous times by Russia’s Investigative Committee, but he and many others waived these away as politically motivated and unsubstantiated. 

Navalny, after unsuccessfully running for mayor of Moscow, was placed under house arrest, prohibited from accessing the internet, and was convicted of fraud. This conviction was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.”

After announcing his campaign for the 2018 Russian presidential election, the responses to his views by Putin and those in the ruling party became even more egregious. Navalny had a green substance thrown at his face. He and members of the opposition were barred from running for political campaigns. 

In 2020, Navalny fell ill while on a flight and then went into a coma. He was suspected to have been poisoned, which was confirmed by German authorities, as they found he had been infected by a Soviet-era nerve agent. When Navalny returned to Russia, he was arrested once more. Russian courts continued to add onto his sentence for seemingly fabricated charges, with one conviction adding 19 years on counts of “extremism.”

His team continued to call for an end to the rampant corruption, while he intermittently became sick and was denied medical assistance, believing to be poisoned once more. This all culminated in his death, in which Putin and his allies continue to deny their culpability. 

This history of attempting to undermine those who expose their injustice has sparked mass protests against Putin and his party across Europe. Many supporters of Navalny have brought flowers to adorn makeshift memorials around Russia, but authorities threaten those who grieve him publicly through protest with arrest. 

In other European countries, specifically Germany, protesters stand outside of Russian embassies chanting and expressing their disdain towards Putin. Many wonder if the hope for a better future for Russia was killed with Navalny, while the response from world leaders seems to emphasize how the Russian rule must pay for their cowardice. 

Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, said, “He was such a strong fighter for democracy, for freedoms, for the Russian people. It really shows the extent to which Putin will crack down on anyone who is fighting for freedom for the Russian people.” 

With regard to responses from the U.S., the differences between the two most likely candidates for the 2024 election are startling. President Joe Biden has and continues to condemn the Russian regime. 

“Putin is responsible," Biden said. "What has happened to Navalny is yet more proof of Putin’s brutality. Nobody should be fooled."  

Former President Donald Trump took the opportunity not to call out Putin for his brutality, but to compare what happened in Russia with American politics.

The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our country,” Trump said

This act of deflection speaks volumes about Trump's interestingly substantial relationship with Russia and Putin in particular. From alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election to Trump’s proclamation that he would not protect NATO members if Putin attacked them, the 2024 election stands as a critical point in history, not just with regards to the U.S.'s relationship with Russia, but Europe and the global stage as a whole. If Donald Trump is elected, his unwillingness to oppose Russia could diminish the United States’s international credibility and our capacity to influence and maintain allies. 

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