The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A Russian dissident is fighting for his life. Where is the U.S.?

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Strasbourg, France, on Nov. 15, 2018.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Strasbourg, France, on Nov. 15, 2018. (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)
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Alexei Navalny holds the audacious belief that Russians should be able to choose their leaders in free, fair and competitive elections. That’s why he tried to run for president in 2018, but was denied a place on the ballot.

He believes that government officials should not use their power for personal enrichment. That’s why he operates one of the most important investigative media outlets in Russia.

He champions the idea that Russians should not be arrested unjustly. That’s why he organizes protests and gets arrested himself.

Navalny threatens autocracy in Russia. That’s why, in a most cruel and sinister act, the authorities sentenced his brother to three years in jail.

And that may be why Navalny has now, it would seem, been attacked again — apparently poisoned. He is lying unconscious, connected to a ventilator in an intensive care unit in a Siberian hospital.

Analysts in Russia and the West spend too much time scrutinizing Navalny’s policy positions: Is he too nationalist? Is he not liberal enough? Is he too leftist? Those are questions for Russian voters to decide — but right now they can’t. To give them such a chance is what Navalny is fighting for.

Navalny’s heroic struggle is no different from what Gandhi, King, Mandela and Havel fought for. While Navalny has not succeeded yet, there should be no doubt that his cause is good and just.

Vladimir Putin is evil. Over the past 20 years, Russia’s current leader has constructed a ruthless dictatorship. He has shut down independent media and civil society organizations, and he has arrested critics and business leaders who dare to challenge his unconstrained powers. Abroad, Putin has annexed Ukrainian territory, sent troops to Syria to prop up one the most brutal dictators of our time, violated American sovereignty in 2016 to try to influence the outcome of our presidential election, and is interfering again in our election now. At home and abroad, Putin’s regime and its proxies have repeatedly killed, or tried to kill, its critics. Navalny may have just become his latest victim.

I use the verb “may” because, of course, we do not know all the details. We probably never will. We still don’t know all the facts about who killed Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, or who twice poisoned democratic defender Vladimir Kara-Murza, or the full story behind other assassinated Russian heroes who also fought against evil.

Putin has a talent for deniability. Yet even if the ex-KGB officer who now runs Russia didn’t directly order a hit on Navalny, he is still to blame. It is Putin who has empowered intelligence officers and created permissive conditions for vigilantes.

In an earlier period in American history, our government and people would have stood united on the side of good in this fight against evil. There was no partisan divide when it came to standing up for heroes and standing against villains.

Yes, U.S. presidents sometimes had to negotiate with dictators to advance American national interests. And yes, there have often been cases in which we failed to defend those who were doing the right thing. But even when we were not doing enough to embrace good and stand up to evil, previous U.S. presidents knew they were in the wrong.

Moreover, when negotiating with autocrats, most U.S. presidents did not check their values at the door. When visiting Moscow for the first time in 1988, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but also hosted a lunch with dissidents, people like Navalny. President George W. Bush did the same when attending a meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg in 2006. My old boss, President Barack Obama, met with Russian civil society and opposition leaders on his first visit to Moscow in 2009 – and did so again on his last visit to Russia in 2013.

President Trump, by contrast, has enthusiastically embraced Putin and excused his villainous ways. To the best of my knowledge, Trump has never praised, let alone met with, activists or opposition leaders in Russia, Ukraine or Belarus. On hearing of Navalny’s hospitalization, all Trump could muster Thursday was “We haven’t seen it yet, we’re looking at it, and Mike [Pompeo]’s going to be reporting to me soon.” Not a word of concern, let alone outrage. In the clear divide between good and evil in Russia, Trump is on the wrong side.

American indifference to evil has consequences. It emboldens the villains and weakens the heroes. But sometimes presidents must say and do things — for example, to impose sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko for stealing an election in Belarus, to criticize Putin for aiding the Taliban, to signal solidarity with Navalny and offer assistance as European leaders have — not because these actions might be effective, but because they are right. In a world divided by good and evil, it’s time for America to get back on the right side.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: The U.S. must not ignore the apparent poisoning of another Russian dissident

The Post’s View: Another Putin foe is felled. The West must respond.

Jackson Diehl: Putin is an expert at poisoning dissidents. Trump shouldn’t just let it happen.

Valdimir Kara-Murza: It’s been four years since the murder of Boris Nemtsov. Russians haven’t forgotten.

The Post’s View: Assad and Putin are responsible for Syria’s latest wave of suffering

Leon Aron: The risks of a Russian intervention in Belarus