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If Putin’s Strongest Opponent Dies in Prison, What Will Biden Do?

Putin sits at a desk and holds some documents. A flag is seen at his right.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting in Moscow on Monday. Alexei Druxhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

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Joe Biden has a story he likes to tell whenever he talks about Vladimir Putin: that when he met Putin at the Kremlin in 2011, he told the Russian dictator, “I don’t think you have a soul.” In a recent TV interview, he also pointedly agreed that Putin is a “killer,” and the Russian president responded with a taunt and challenged Biden to a live televised debate. What’s weird about all this is that it’s not how we usually see presidents talking about their counterparts in other countries. But as silly as this back-and-forth sounds, it likely signals a very real shift in U.S.-Russia dynamics. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Joshua Keating, a Slate senior editor who focuses on international affairs, about the future of the two countries’ fraught relationship and what role dissident Alexei Navalny has to play in it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: I feel like it’s worth listing out all the provocations the U.S. has faced from Russia over the past year: election interference, the SolarWinds hack, and Russia putting more troops on the border with Ukraine. These are not little provocations. They’re pretty big.

Joshua Keating: And then, of course, there’s the situation with Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most important domestic opponent. He’s tried to run for president against Putin several times, was pretty clearly poisoned by the government last year, had to leave the country, and then returned and is currently in jail as we record this, on hunger strike and fighting for his life. If he dies in prison in the next few days or weeks, that’s going to be a further deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations.

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I wonder if you can tell the story of where the U.S. and Russia are from Russia’s perspective.

I think, from the Russian perspective, the U.S. is this hypocritical bully that goes around talking about democracy and human rights and lecturing other countries as it uses its military power to overthrow foreign governments. Not just in Iraq and Libya and Syria, but, according to the Russian narrative, the U.S. was behind the so-called color revolutions in countries close by, like Ukraine and Georgia. From the Russian perspective, those were U.S.-backed efforts at regime change.

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I think one thing that American governments have gotten wrong about Russia—and this was definitely true of the Obama administration—is viewing it dismissively as this declining power, that’s totally dependent on selling oil, that’s seeing reduced birthrates. The idea is that if Russia gets weaker at home, it’s going to lose the ability to project power abroad. The thing is, Russia’s been pretty effective at projecting that. It still has probably the world’s third most powerful military. It’s been a major player in the conflict in Syria. It annexed Crimea—it seized territory from another country. That never happens anymore. And Russia played at least some role in interfering in the U.S. election in 2016. I think it goes too far to say Russia got Donald Trump elected, but it certainly had some disruptive influence in that election. So I think it’s a little naïve to say that Russia is this declining power that we don’t have to worry about anymore.

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You mentioned Navalny, who’s imprisoned in Russia right now and reportedly in dire shape healthwise. I wonder if you can tell his story and how he reached the place he’s in now.

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Navalny is an interesting figure. He first came to prominence as a blogger, as a kind of muckraking investigator who published these exposés of the wealth of powerful oligarchs and officials in Putin’s circle. Over time, he’s sort of become a politician as well. He’s run for president. He’s run for mayor of Moscow. He was arrested in 2013 and then unexpectedly released after thousands of his supporters marched on the Kremlin.

One thing that’s important to note: There has been opposition in Russia before, but it’s been difficult for traditional liberal parties to expand their constituency outside educated liberals in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Navalny’s had a much wider appeal, and there’s a dark side to it. Early in his career, he had links to right-wing nationalist groups, and he’s made some pretty disgusting comments about immigrants and Muslims, which he’s since distanced himself from is as a sort of international profile has grown.

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I think that he has a kind of nationalist appeal. It’s harder for the Kremlin to paint him as Western puppet. And I think that focusing on the graft, on the corruption, and on the personal wealth that Russian politicians including have amassed during their time in power—that has more of an appeal than rather airy notions of liberal democracy.

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Last year, Navalny was poisoned while he was boarding a flight in Novosibirsk, which is a city in Siberia, and he was evacuated to Germany for medical treatment. It’s pretty clear from subsequent investigations that the Russian Federal Security Service had a role in that poisoning. But despite a pretty clear threat to his life, he returned to Russia in January and was immediately arrested.

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Why did he return?

It was a calculated risk. He knew he’d be arrested and that there would be massive protests. You have to remember, he’s been arrested before and been released before. He knew that this would be a sort of major galvanizing political event.

I mean, the man’s not a saint. In addition to the racist comments, he’s been called an authoritarian and a bully by people who’ve worked with him. But in terms of the sheer physical courage needed to face up to this government that’s very clearly willing to kill him, it’s hard to think of many political figures in the world to match him.

How does that change the calculus for someone like Putin, who’s been in charge for a long time and has just put in place rules that mean he can be in charge for even longer?

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I think he’s sort of hoped he can make Navalny go away. But Navalny has continued to build support. So there’s a high-stakes game of chicken going on.

On Wednesday, there are massive street protests planned throughout Russia, which could be the biggest protests the country has seen since 2011. If Navalny dies in prison, the protest movement is only going to grow. I think Putin is taking massive risks here, too with the way Navalny is being treated.

The Biden administration has few options to restrict Putin’s behavior. The U.S. has thrown a ton of sanctions Russia’s way, but even the latest round of sanctions is kind of routine.

One, they expelled 10 Russian diplomats, which is something they’ve done before. Two, they put sanctions on a number of countries they say were linked to Russia’s cyber activities abroad. And three, they banned companies from purchasing bonds issued by the Russian government—from buying Russian government debt, which is a major way that government raises capital.

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The thing is, the U.S. has imposed round after round of sanctions on Russia since the seizure of Crimea in 2014.

Has it had any impact?

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I mean, it’s had an impact on Russia’s GDP. It hasn’t had an effect on Russia’s behavior. I guess you could say maybe it would have gone further in Ukraine if not for the sanctions, but the Kremlin definitely haven’t gone back on anything that it had been doing. There’s an argument to be made that these sanctions may have actually strengthened Putin a little bit because these Russian companies no longer have access to international capital, so it’s only made them more dependent on the Russian government.

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Biden is stuck with the meat and potatoes of foreign policy, like joining with other countries to make it harder for Putin to work his will. That gets complicated pretty fast, say, if the U.S. does more to help Ukraine stand up to Russia.

The thing is, Ukraine is also looking to provoke crises. Its government built up its own troops on the borders of these disputed areas where Russian separatists hold sway. That happened a few weeks before Russia sent its own troops to the Russia-Ukraine border. So I think it’s sort of to the Ukrainian government’s advantage if there is a U.S.-Russia crisis, because that means the U.S. is going to be sort of pouring more and support into Ukraine.

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Do you feel like the U.S. may be about to be used by one or both of these countries?

I think this worked out just how the government of Ukraine wanted it. On the Europe side of this, I think another interesting issue to look at is this pipeline—

The pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Right. It’s called Nord Stream 2. It’s an expansion of an existing pipeline project. It’s, I believe, about 90 percent completed. But if completed, this will make Germany and Western Europe more dependent on Russia for its natural gas. It’s going to be a blow to Ukraine too, because previously a lot of that gas came in through that country. The U.S. has long been opposed to this pipeline, and the Biden administration is coming under pressure from Congress to sanction it.

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The reason this is a tough one for Biden is because every foreign policy position the U.S. takes is about working with allies and rebuilding alliances. But Germany, or at least the current German government, really wants this pipeline. If you’re going to put sanctions on it to punish Russia, you’re going to piss off Germany and strain the alliances you want, not just on Russia but on a whole host of other issues.

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It sounds like at this point we’re in this real reset, where the political parties in the U.S. are trying to decide how they respond to all this.

I think there’s a recognition that Russia—at least as long as Vladimir Putin is in power—is not going to be any sort of partner. There may be moments when there are opportunities on arms control on Afghanistan, on very particular issues where there is room for cooperation. But overall, Russia has an ideological project that sees Western liberal democracies as a threat. And that’s not going to change. Nobody wants to go to war with Russia. Nobody wants direct conflict. I think the idea is that we can have a rivalry but keep it at like a low simmer and sort of manage it. I think that’s the place where the current Biden team seems to have landed.

Slate is the place that gave me the freedom to create What Next alongside a small team of dedicated producers. Over the years, we’ve developed a format that didn’t just give context to the news—but, during the coronavirus pandemic, became a way for us to connect with our listeners, and for our listeners to hear from one another. Your Slate Plus support means we’ve been able to grow our team from three people to six—more, if you count What Next: TBD with the amazing Lizzie O’Leary. Thank you so much for your support. —Mary Harris, What Next host

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