Ready or Not, Biden Faces an Early Test With Putin

Ready or Not, Biden Faces an Early Test With Putin
Masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, left of Putin, at a street souvenir shop in St. Petersburg, Russia, Jan. 17, 2021 (AP photo by Dmitri Lovetsky).

U.S. President Joe Biden’s first opportunity to pivot away from Donald Trump’s often cozy approach to Russia came just days before he took office. The Kremlin’s swift detention of President Vladimir Putin’s chief critic, Alexei Navalny, when he returned to Moscow on Sunday—five months after surviving a failed assassination attempt—presents Biden with perhaps unwelcome pressure to respond quickly. But it also gives his administration the chance to accelerate its goal of reversing four years of silence on Russia from the White House and simultaneously restarting diplomatic coordination with much-neglected European allies.

Navalny’s decision to return to Russia was either foolish or brave, depending on your view of personal sacrifice for a higher cause. Everyone, including himself, knew Putin would not countenance his presence.

It is all but certain that Russian agents tried to kill Navalny in August. While on a commercial flight over Siberia, he became gravely ill. The pilot diverted to a local hospital, where Navalny lay in a coma on the verge of death. After much pressure, Russian authorities finally allowed his medical transfer to Germany, where doctors in Berlin determined he had been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the KGB and used by its successor agency, the FSB, when it tried to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a double agent, in Salisbury, England, in 2018. Putin has denied responsibility for Navalny’s poisoning, even joking that if Russian agents had wanted to kill him, “they would have probably finished the job.”

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