Alexei Navalny has been forsaken by Western human rights advocates due controversial comments he made years ago. Photo: AFP/Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency

This week the United States and European Union issued sanctions on Russian individuals in response to the attempted assassination and subsequent jailing of high-profile opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

These penalties aim to win the release of a bold and principled man from jail. They won’t likely work, though.

For one thing, Russia has proven its ability to resist Western sanctions since 2014. For this reason, Navalny’s supporters are urging different means of putting pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

A further problem is that, in addition to his multiple domestic tribulations, Navalny has been forsaken by Western human rights advocates due to homophobic and other controversial comments he made years ago. His more recent political persona, under which he has promoted far more liberal ideas than previously, has been ignored.

Navalny, who has carried on a relentless campaign against corruption under President Putin, bravely returned to Moscow from Germany in January after coming out of a coma induced by a nerve agent.

He was promptly arrested and sentenced to two years and eight months in a labor camp. The charge? Prosecutors said that, while in Germany, he had not checked in with Russian parole agents as required by a previous court judgment.

This mild “crime” is being punished with severity.

Navalny is now confined to Penal Colony 2 in the region of Vladimir, 110 miles east of Moscow. It is a prison notorious for physical and psychological torture, say lawyers who have represented inmates there. And the West has no plan to get him out.

An Orthodox church on the grounds of the penal colony where Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is serving a two-and-a-half-year term. Photo: AFP/Dimitar Dilkoff

Need for smarter sanctions

Financial sanctions placed on seven Russian security officials are largely symbolic. Besides the difficulty of discovering and sequestering assets these officials might hold abroad, neither Washington nor Brussels provided specifics on just how punishments would be administered beyond the withholding of visas.

Bans on Western firms dealing with some other Russian agencies may be more effective, but will not change Moscow minds.

One reason is that US and EU financial sanctions have been piling up on Moscow ever since its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea. Yet Russian troops remain in eastern Ukraine, where they continue to supply pro-Russian militias. It is unlikely that the annexation of Crimea will be reversed, now or ever.

The US has leveled more than 700 sanctions of different sorts on Russia under a number of different institutions over the last decade. Former US President Donald Trump, who current US President Joe Biden said was soft on Putin, sanctioned 273 Russian or connected groups and individuals, most in the wake of the Ukraine intervention. 

US officials claim the Navalny assassination attempt was ordered by high-placed Russian officials, though Putin himself was not accused in the sanctions announcement. German, French and Swiss investigators identified the poison as Novichok, a nerve agent produced for the Russian military.

The Russian government, for its part, denies all the accusations.

Navalny supporters say Washington and Brussels should slap financial sanctions on the key Russian magnates who support Putin rather than simply targeting those directly involved in the poisoning.

“What would really create leverage against Putin would be sanctioning the close circle of his oligarchs,” Leonid Volkov, a top aide to Navalny, said after this week’s sanctions announcement.

“Most of the elite feel integrated in Europe and they don’t want to break ties; they want to send their children to school there, buy property in London or France, do business there,” Volkov said. “Targeted sanctions would lead to intra-elite conflicts that can threaten Putin’s grip on power.”

Europe is unconvinced. EU Commission Foreign Policy Minister Josep Borrell explained that sanctions would only target people directly connected with Navalny’s arrest.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks politically unassailable. Photo: AFP

An incomplete narrative

Meanwhile, another problem is requiring Navalny’s supporters to fight a defensive public relations battle over attacks on their man by foreign critics.

These critics contend that Navalny is an anti-gay, misogynist bigot and an extreme nationalist who detests Russian citizens of Caucasian and Central Asian descent.

Recently, Amnesty International withdrew its declaration of Navalny as a prisoner of conscience after online critics complained about his past controversial comments. Amnesty said Navalny had engaged in “advocacy of hatred.” 

The Kremlin has also promoted these narratives to discredit Navalny. His supporters fear that such accusations have limited international support for him.

Amnesty said it had done thorough research, but it, and other critics, seem not to have focused on Navalny’s evolution as a politician. Some attacks on Navalny are based on remarks he made as long as 14 years ago.

In the years leading up to his poisoning, Navalny had not only softened his rhetoric on a variety of subjects, he also began to outline his views of a new Russia – a Russia that North Americans and Western Europeans would likely feel very comfortable with.

His ideas about Russian nationality and minority rights have become inclusive. “There are no second-class people,” he said in 2013. “And if someone thinks so, then he is a dangerous lunatic who needs to be re-educated, treated or isolated from society. In principle, there can be no question of any limitation of the rights of citizens on the basis of ethnicity.”

After his poisoning, Navalny went further and said Russia “must guarantee that everyone has the same rights and access to the same opportunities.”

He laughed off the idea that, because he once referred to his wife as a “chick,” he disdains women. “It was just a nickname,” he said, noting that women play a prominent role in his anti-corruption campaigns.

In 2009, Navalny had suggested sneeringly that gay people who want to participate in pride events should simply “cavort” in closed stadiums. In 2013, he declared gay parades a “constitutional right.” In 2017, he proposed a referendum on same-sex marriages in Russian regions, although he was unwilling to support adoption rights for gay couples.

He staunchly criticized Putin for pushing the notion that gay activists are promoting propaganda designed to debauch children. “There is no such thing as gay propaganda,” Navalny said. “It was invented in order to find some kind of enemy … [so] distracting society from [its] problems.”

Last June, he accused Putin’s supporters of broadcasting a “completely crazy” advertisement in advance of a referendum granting the Russian president the right to stay in office for two more six-year terms. The ad showed two fathers of a little boy forcing the distraught child into a dress.

In a post-poisoning video interview, Navalny laid out his hopes for a “Wonderful Russia” with free, fair and non-fraudulent elections, an independent judiciary and a united society of many ethnicities with equal rights.

Amnesty and others acknowledge that Putin put Navalny in jail for his democratization campaign, not for his offensive comments. They still want him released.

But their critiques, apparently uninformed of Navalny’s overall record, have been broadcast worldwide. Russia’s state TV channels have re-broadcast them with zest.

An pro-Navalny protester in action. Photo: AFP

Unrealistic positions

Navalny’s critics seem to have absorbed a current American political notion that, once someone has said something untoward, that person can never be redeemed – unless maybe by offering the kind of groveling mea maxima culpa of the sort now popular in US culture.

Or perhaps, having been burned in post-Soviet life by the inept Boris Yeltsin and the long reign of dictatorial Putin, they are in search of an absolutely pure politician to lead Russia’s democratization efforts – as if such a personality exists.

Critics might do well to consider the dictum that “perfect is the enemy of the good.” Or in the words of Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.