Putin's latest victim: Aleksei Navalny

Learn more about David J. Kramer.
David J. Kramer
David J. Kramer
Executive Director, George W. Bush Institute and Vice President
George W. Bush Presidential Center
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a rally in support of political prisoners in Prospekt Sakharova Street in Moscow in 2019. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Make no mistake about it: Vladimir Putin killed Aleksei Navalny. Regardless of the “official” cause of death, Putin bears responsibility for the death of Navalny and should be held accountable for this latest of many murders of regime critics and opponents.

Russia’s federal penitentiary service reported today that Navalny died in prison after losing consciousness. He was being held in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous region in Russia’s Arctic under absolutely miserable conditions.

Navalny, the leading opposition figure whom Putin threw in jail more than three years ago, was essentially condemned to death. The murder of Navalny, who showed tremendous courage under horribly adverse conditions, was only a matter of time. He had been poisoned by Putin’s thugs in 2020 but survived that assassination attempt. After recovering in Germany, he boldly returned to Russia in January 2021 because he refused to let Putin keep him out of his homeland. Putin had him arrested at the airport.

From confinement, Navalny remained a thorn in Putin’s side as his anti-corruption foundation continued to release exposes on Putin and his circle. Navalny had been disqualified from running against Putin in the 2018 presidential election but was seen as the greatest political challenger to the Russian dictator. Over the years, he was harassed, beaten, arrested, and imprisoned. Yet he never gave up his defiant and brave fight for a better Russia. A Russia where its citizens are free to pursue their dreams, aren’t conscripted to die invading a sovereign country, and the cost of groceries don’t make up 28% of the average income.

Navalny joins a long list of victims of Putin’s bloody repression. It starts in 1999. That year, then Prime Minister Putin oversaw the second invasion of the Russian region of Chechnya after four bombings in Russia killed 300 people. Without evidence, Putin blamed the bombings on Chechen terrorists and launched the massive military campaign that led to tens of thousands of Chechens being killed. Putin was seen as leading a decisive response to the terrorist threat and was elected president a few months later. Putin’s beginning, in other words, was built on the bodies of thousands of corpses.

From there, critics and challengers were arrested, including oligarchs Vladimir Gusinsky in 2000 and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. Others were forced into exile or assassinated – such as pathbreaking journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot and killed in her apartment building in 2006, and former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium in London a month later.

Before Navalny became the leading opposition figure, that mantle belonged to Boris Nemtsov, a friend of mine who was shot and killed yards from the Kremlin in 2015. To list Putin’s many other victims would take too many pages.

Putin is a massive threat to Russia’s neighbors – as seen by the invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014 and again in 2022) – and to the rest of the West through threats to use nuclear weapons, cyberattacks, and election interference. But first and foremost, Putin is an existential threat to his own people, at least those brave enough to question, criticize, and challenge his two-plus decades of corrupt, fascist rule.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to the news among the Russian people. Will they be moved to protest or be cowed into deeper submission under threat of a merciless regime? Putin feels no compunction in eliminating his perceived enemies, domestic or foreign. And more victims will be added to his list unless we in the West help to stop him by supporting Ukraine in its heroic fight for freedom as well as those Russians who refuse to be intimidated.

The New York Times noted that Navalny posted an Instagram  message to his wife on Valentine’s Day: We may be separated by “blue blizzards and thousands of kilometers,” he wrote, “but I feel that you are near me every second, and I keep loving you even more.”

May Aleksei Navalny rest in peace. May Vladimir Putin rot in hell.