I am in awe of dissidents in police states who risk their lives and freedom to fight for democracy and human rights. Their courage stands as a searing rebuke to all those — including, most recently, many Republicans in Washington — who are complicit in plots against democracy.

But even among fighters for freedom, Alexei Navalny stands out for his sheer, unadulterated courage. This man has, as so many have said, “balls of steel.”

Last August, Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok — almost certainly on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Only medical evacuation to Germany saved his life. Yet Navalny was unbowed by this ordeal. He even managed to record a conversation in which he tricked one of his alleged would-be assassins — an FSB operative — into a confession.

No one would have held it against him if Navalny had decided to go into exile with his family. It would have been the smart move, especially given that Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service warned that he faced immediate imprisonment on his return to Russia on trumped-up criminal charges. Navalny and his wife, Yulia, flew back to Moscow anyway on Jan. 17, setting up the arrest everyone expected.

But even in prison, Navalny has not stopped fighting Putin. On Tuesday, his team posted a video alleging vast corruption in the construction of a sprawling palace on the Black Sea for Putin — complete with drone footage of this “new Versailles” or “new Winter Palace.” That video has now been viewed more than 70 million times, thereby exposing the criminality at the heart of the Putin regime.

Navalny called for a day of protests on Saturday — and large numbers of Russians braved freezing weather and Putin’s goons to turn out. In Moscow alone, the Reuters news agency reported 40,000 in the streets. But these were not just protests in the cosmopolitan cores of Moscow and St. Petersburg. They took place in 70 cities across a country that spans two continents.

The Internet is full of video clips of riot police brutally arresting demonstrators — and of demonstrators pelting the riot police with snowballs. “People I spoke to weren’t necessarily political before,” wrote Max Seddon, the Financial Times correspondent in Moscow, “but what Russia did to Navalny infuriated them.” In short, by sacrificing his own freedom, Navalny has struck a powerful blow for freedom in Russia.

Navalny’s arrest and the subsequent crackdown on demonstrations present the Biden administration with its first foreign policy crisis. The new national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, already tweeted a demand for Navalny’s release, but it will take more than tweets to get Putin’s attention.

Four of Putin’s leading opponents in the West — former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and financier-turned-human-rights activist Bill Browder — held a news conference on Saturday demanding financial repercussions for the Russian regime. This does not necessarily mean more sanctions on the Russian economy — which hurt primarily the Russian people while Putin and his friends continue to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. As Kasparov (with whom I work on the Renew Democracy Initiative) emailed me: “Putin and his gang don’t care about national interests, only their own. Go after their money. Track it down, freeze their accounts, seize their assets. Tell his lobbyists and enablers to go to hell.”

Edward Lucas of the Center for European Policy Analysis has fleshed out how to hold Putin and his gang accountable: Anyone involved in persecuting Navalny should no longer be welcome in the West. Same with their families. “No visas. No shopping. No holidays. No bank accounts. No investments.” Track down the dirty Russian money in the West. “Freeze the accounts. Seize the properties. Demand evidence … that the money was honestly acquired.” Go after the Russians’ intermediaries too — bankers, accountants, lawyers. They deserve social disgrace at a minimum, and possibly even prison.

Finally, Navalny’s foundation, with limited resources, has done a heroic job of exposing the extravagant corruption of the Putin gang. Think of how much more could be done if the U.S. government devoted serious resources to the task. Indeed, much of the information might already exist in the top-secret files of the intelligence community. And if it doesn’t exist, it should be acquired — and then partially declassified.

Putin wants to masquerade as a champion of Russia while victimizing its people. Expose him as the crook that he is.

There is no time to lose. Navalny could all too easily go from prison straight to the morgue. In a chilling Instagram post on Friday, he warned of attempts to kill him in prison: “Just in case: I don’t plan to either hang myself on the window or cut my veins or throat open with a sharpened spoon. I use the staircase very carefully [and] they take my pressure every day so a sudden heart attack is ruled out.”

The Biden administration must do what it can to protect Navalny’s life — and the flickering hopes of freedom in Russia.

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