Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was the victim of poisoning last year. But to an increasing number of Russians, it's President Vladimir Putin who's toxic.
That much was clear last weekend after thousands of Russians in more than 100 cities braved brutal cold and the brutality of security services (who detained more than 3,000) to protest Navalny's arrest after he returned from Germany, where he was recovering from the near-fatal August poisoning.
The Kremlin denies complicity in the attempted murder. But the use of the government-controlled Novichok nerve agent, let alone one of the alleged agents behind the hit confessing his culpability — on a recorded phone call to Navalny, no less — point directly at Putin's government.
Russia's rulers had ignored news of Navalny, but that tone changed sharply after the scale of the protests unnerved Moscow. Such deep disaffection won't show up at sham elections like the 2018 presidential plebiscite, especially since Navalny and other opposition figures weren't allowed to run. But now Putin's puppetlike media has changed tactics, demonizing Navalny and his movement, in part by characterizing the show of support from Western officials as a sign that Navalny is working against the country's interests.
The opposite is true. The nation's citizens should see the evidence of the obscene corruption of Russia's leaders — including Navalny's video expose of Putin's perfidy that's already been viewed more than 80 million times.
Western governments, including the one led by the Biden administration, should continue to speak up for Navalny's release on trumped-up charges, and against human rights abuses by Russia. They should take a cue from the U.S. State Department's strong condemnation of "the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists," which "follows years of tightening restrictions on and repressive actions against civil society, independent media, and the political opposition."
Calling for Navalny's immediate release and a credible explanation of "the use of chemical weapons on its soil," the statement ended by saying that "the United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defense of human rights — whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat."
Unlike the attempted "reset" of Russian relations during the Obama years, or the tendency to swap admonition for admiration during the Trump administration, the unequivocal statement signals a welcome return to the support of universal values including human rights and democracy.
That doesn't mean that Washington can't work with Moscow on other issues, such as Biden's bid to extend the New START nuclear treaty with Russia, as well as addressing pressing issues involving Iran, North Korea, Syria and others.
Washington and Moscow were able to work together on key issues during the Cold War, when the U.S. was unflinching in its support for human rights. American leadership needs to be reasserted, even if it risks a reaction from Putin and his repressive regime.