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One of Vladimir Putin’s top domestic critics is accusing the Biden administration of failing to confront the Kremlin. Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who survived a government poisoning attempt in 2020, likened the U.S. to a “frightened schoolboy” because it is falling for Putin’s tricks.
Although Navalny is currently being held in a penal colony, Time’s Simon Shuster was able to conduct an interview with him through letters transported by his family members between November and January — as Russia amassed over 100,000 troops at several points along its border with Ukraine.
Toward the end of this period, in mid January, Navalny wrote to Shuster saying: “Time and again the West falls into Putin’s elementary traps. It just takes my breath away, watching how Putin pulls this on the American establishment again and again.”
He also criticized the current U.S. approach to dealing with the Kremlin, which he says places too much of an emphasis on European security matters. Instead, he told Time that Washington should focus on pressuring the regime itself:
Few people have studied Putin as long or as obsessively as Navalny. In his letters, he tries to explain what motivates the Russian President, and what Putin fears. It is not what he claims to be concerned about: the deployment of U.S. forces in Eastern Europe, or the chance that Ukraine might one day join the NATO alliance. “Instead of ignoring this nonsense,” Navalny writes, “the U.S. accepts Putin’s agenda and runs to organize some meetings. Just like a frightened schoolboy who’s been bullied by an upperclassman.”
What Putin truly fears is what Navalny’s movement seeks—a change of power in Russia, followed by cashiering its corrupt clan of oligarchs and spies. It isn’t NATO that keeps Putin up at night; it’s the space for democratic dissent that NATO opens up along his border. This fear, Navalny argues, is what drives all the conflicts Russia wages with the West. “To consolidate the country and the elites,” he writes, “Putin constantly needs all these extreme measures, all these wars—real ones, virtual ones, hybrid ones or just confrontations at the edge of war, as we’re seeing now.”
Navalny also said that the Biden administration’s sanctions in response to his poisoning failed to go far enough:
Last August, on the first anniversary of the poisoning, the U.S. sanctioned a group of Russian security officers for trying to kill Navalny with a chemical weapon. Most of those identified in Navalny’s investigation were on the list. Yet he was disappointed in the American response. “These are just the agents of Putin’s will,” he wrote me. “We’re all tired of rolling our eyes, watching the U.S. impose sanctions on some colonels and generals, who don’t even have any money abroad.” It would be far more effective, he says, to go after Putin’s own fortune and the bagmen who keep it for him in Western banks. “It’s really simple,” Navalny writes. “You want to influence Putin, then influence his personal wealth. It’s right under your backside.”
Navalny’s associates had provided the Biden administration with a list of 35 top Russian officials to target in connection with his killing. The White House declined to act on the list, and administration officials also lobbied congressional Democrats to block an amendment to the annual defense bill requiring sanctions against the so-called “Navalny 35.” The provision didn’t make it into the version of the bill signed by the president last month.