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 Don’t Let Navalny Derail the Effort for Peace

by John Jefferson
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On Friday, journalists reminded President Joe Biden of his threat to Vladimir Putin three years ago that Russia would face “devastating consequences” if Alexei Navalny died. The president assured them, “We’re looking at a whole number of options.”

Biden should hesitate to pile any more sanctions on top of those already in place. When the dust settles and we have more clarity on what exactly happened to the jailed dissident, no matter what we learn, Russia will still be there. It will be the same country, with the same interests, with which we have to deal one way or another. Navalny’s death has not changed the fundamental facts.

One of those facts—an inconvenient one—is that Russia is far less vulnerable to sanctions today than it was back in 2014. Tucker Carlson has been mocked for his video on Moscow grocery stores, but surely it is fair to be surprised to see such abundance and affordability in a country that is supposedly under crippling sanctions.

I was in Moscow in the summer of 2014, just after the first round of sanctions in response to the annexation of Crimea, and their effects were evident. My husband ordered lamb at a restaurant and was told the dish was canceled due to sanctions. Australia and New Zealand had been big exporters of meat to Russia, and that supply was abruptly cut off and could not easily be replaced.

Now Russia exports lamb to other countries. A Harper’s journalist who visited Kazan was told by his lunch host that “before the war I would have been eating ‘sh*t lamb from New Zealand,’ but that this meat, tender and tasty, was Russian.” The same is true of other food products, especially meat and dairy, that were previously imported and now are produced domestically.

Russia’s increase in food production is not accidental. Putin has made the agricultural sector a target of policy since his first term, with state investment, debt relief, and subsidies for inputs such as fertilizer, high-yield seeds, and farm machinery. Russia was still a net food importer as recently as 2013. Today, it is a net food exporter, and has in some recent years been the world’s largest exporter of grain.

So, yes, the high quality of Moscow grocery stores is something Americans should pay attention to: not as evidence that their system is superior, but as confirmation that our efforts to harm Russia economically are not working.

Navalny’s death does not need to be something Americans ignore. We should simply be prudent in how we react to it—especially when it is not clear exactly what happened to him.

Obviously, the Russian state does have people killed. There was confirmation of that just this week with the death in Spain of Maxim Kuzminov, a Russian military pilot who defected last year when he landed his helicopter on Ukrainian territory. (His two fellow pilots were shot dead.) Kuzminov was found in a parking garage with six bullet holes in his body.

But even if killing Navalny is the kind of thing the Kremlin would do, it is not clear that it’s something they did do. The timing was hardly propitious. Quite the opposite, between the congressional deliberations over further funding for Ukraine and the Munich Security Conference, the timing could hardly have been worse for Russia.

Was Navalny a threat to Putin sitting in prison? Yes and no. His popularity among Russians was quite low—single digits according to reliable polls. The only chance Navalny had of becoming president was if he rode into office at the head of a Western-sponsored color revolution. He seems to have reached the same conclusion himself, which is why in his latest incarnation as a liberal reformer he avoided cultivating allies in the Russian elite, which he would need if he wanted to build power domestically; instead he courted fans abroad.

Alas, as long as there are people in the U.S. State Department scheming to make a Russian color revolution happen, that revolution’s presumptive president-in-waiting will pose a threat to Putin—even a man who wouldn’t stand a chance against Putin in an election. The questions are whether that threat was sufficiently neutralized with Navalny in prison, and whether there was any upside in his death for the Kremlin at all, much less an upside that outweighs the penalties they will now face.

Regardless of who killed Navalny or whether he was deliberately murdered, there are many Ukraine hawks trying to use his death to derail any prospect of peace talks with Russia. That is a lamentable bit of opportunism on their part. The case for sitting down with Russia and negotiating an end to this war has nothing to do with our opinion of Russia’s leadership. It lies in the fact that Ukraine has no path to victory. Every day the war is prolonged, people will die, even if they never get glowing obituaries in the New York Times.



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