No, the US should not sanction Russia over the jailing of Navalny

Alexey Navalny is entitled to a fair trial, but levying more sanctions on his behalf will only hurt ordinary Russians and destroy the prospects for Russia-U.S. dialogue and diplomacy.

On January 23rd, pro-Navalny supporters conducted large-scale protests across Russia’s multiple time zones after opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was detained upon returning to the country. The reasoning for Navalny’s arrest originates from a 2014 financial crime, followed by Navalny’s violation of meeting his sentencing terms, in which he failed to report to his parole officer while staying in Germany. Navalny had spent the previous five months in Germany recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning which nearly took his life. The opposition leader has accused the Russian government as the culprit of the poisoning, yet the Kremlin has denied all accusations and there has been no conclusive evidence presented thus far.

Protestors quickly took the streets upon Navalny’s arrest, ensuing conflict between protest individuals and police personnel. Russia’s domestic situation has also garnered attention among international heads. EU member states have already pursued possible punishments for the Russian Federation and America’s top policymakers formulating a bill that would impose sanctions on the country.

America’s Response

As some Americans have closely monitored the Navalny situation, the majority of U.S. citizens have retained a low-level interest in the matter, despite the barrage of media headlines and the array of reactions from U.S. politicians. The substance of reports generated by American news outlets has often lacked a full-scope of the situation— often centering releases and articles on the Russian government’s crackdown on protesters. Reports on the size of Russian protests have also been misleading, fluctuating from 40,000+ protestors to other media outlets estimating between 15,000-25,000 people.

Capitol Hill also saw a plethora of remarks, with U.S. politicians releasing statements on Russia’s domestic situation. President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken released their respective announcements, both condemning the Russian Federation and calling for an immediate release of Alexei Navalny. Reactions among U.S. media conglomerates and certain politicians have spread to the activities of America’s top policymakers. In the past two weeks, U.S. Senators such as Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have scrambled to initiate policies to create economic sanctions towards Russia.

“Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act”

The Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act (S.208) was introduced into the U.S. Senate by Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) on February 3rd, 2021. The bill recommends to “impose sanctions with respect to individuals associated with the Government of the Russian Federation who are complicit in the poisoning and repression of citizens of the Russian Federation for political motives, and for other purposes.” The proposed policy is co-sponsored by five other U.S. Senators, with Mitt Romney being an influential force in the legislation piece's direction. Here are the specifics of the bill and what it implies for Russia:

  • The imposition of sanctions with respect to the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The President (Biden) shall impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, allowing the President to impose U.S. entry and property sanctions against any foreign person or entity. (Sec.2)(b)

  • Requests diplomatic engagement with Germany with respect to support for Nord Stream 2 Pipeline. Calls to Secretary of State (Antony Blinken) to withdraw support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from the Russian Federation. (Sec.5)

  • Demands for the immediate release of Alexei Navalny from detention and other political prisoners from politically motivated detention. (Sec.7)

What does this mean for Russia?

The Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act is intended to apply an increase of economic pressure on Russia. Since 2014, American and EU leaders have repeatedly used economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool to express their dissatisfaction with Russia’s domestic and foreign agenda. The Malign Activities Act will add to the extensive list of Western sanctions over Russia and contain similar sanction goals. According to Iikka Korhonen, these sanctions include the use of travel restrictions, asset freezes, curtailing of long-term financing of Russian companies, limited access for Russian businesses to capital markets, and a limitation of foreign investment into the country. Effects of the sanctions have varied from analyst-to-analyst, due to Russia’s economic performance being tied with global crude oil prices. Despite the variation, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that the 2015 Western-backed sanctions lowered Russia’s gross domestic product by 1-1.5%. Russia also saw a reduction in its economic development, dropping by 0.2 percent every year since 2014.

Although American and EU leaders target Russia’s political officials in their economic sanctions, its effects tend to have trickle-down effects on Russia’s population, specifically in the lower and middle classes. In a study piloted by Richard Pape, evidence shows that sanctions are prone to ambiguous effects and lack overall success in steering countries' foreign policy behaviors. As an alternative to direct military force, economic sanctions are relatively easy to deploy yet have suffering consequences on innocent civilians who lack influence on a government’s foreign policy direction. Therefore, sanctions that lack a clear definition of economic sanctions' goals will inherently disrupt Russian citizens' lives.

Additionally, the policy marks a lack of coordination between U.S. Congress and EU member states. As noted, Section 5 of the bill requests for diplomatic communication with Germany in hopes that the negotiations would withdraw Germany’s support from the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline. Germany was the host nation of Alexei Navalny in his five-month recovery process and, in response to Navalny's arrest, has expressed their willingness to sanction Russia. Even with their commitment to punish Russia, Germany is energy-dependent to Russia, with 35% of its natural gas imported from Russia. They will likely withhold any support for the halting of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline— which runs from Russia through the Baltic Sea and into Germany. Questions of U.S. sanctions on Russia and the impact it will have on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline have arisen as German Ministry Spokesman Martin Schaefer claimed that economic sanctions are a means to promote “U.S. industrial policy,” which pursues an increase of U.S. energy exports to Europe, without Russian competition. The Malign Activities Act is an apparent conflict with Germany’s energy and economic interests. It should require a higher level of transparency between the United States, Germany, and other EU member states.

Navalny's Troublesome Background

Even with the widespread coverage Alexey Navalny receives, the blogger turned opposition figure has a more complicated background than what is often presented in Western media. Broadly known for his stance on Russian corruption and an avid critic of Putin’s authoritative style, many Russians have also expressed their concerns on his nationalistic tendencies and outlook on immigration policies.

Before Navalny’s ascension to liberal hero status in the Western media, Navalny was associated with the far-right political spectrum. In 2007, Navalny founded the political movement “The People,” which later allied with “Movement Against Illegal Immigration”— an ultra-right nationalist group. Navalny’s “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” program further pushed his nationalist agenda to eliminate government subsidies to ethnic minorities located in Russia’s autonomous regions, such as Chechnya.

In the past couple of years, Navalny has tried to distance himself from the far-right movement he originated from and rebrand himself as an anti-corruption crusader. However, despite the rebranding, Navalny has strikingly never disavowed the bigoted comments that he's made in the past. This is one reason Irish MEP Clare Daly took to the floor of EU Parliament on February 10th to highlight the hypocrisy of Western reactions to Navalny’s detention, calling Navalny a “vicious, anti-immigrant racist.” It's for this reason, many argue that if Alexey Navalny were a politician in the United States, then he would be quickly canceled and alienated by mainstream political forces for the fact that his xenophobic views are not in line with American values.

Looking Ahead

Ru-PAC supports the notion that Alexei Navalny should receive a fair and just trial in his legal case with the Russian government. Additionally, Ru-PAC believes that Russia's internal matters should be left up to Russians to decide. It is not the place of the United States or any other government to meddle or apply pressure on Russia for issues arising within its own domestic affairs. We believe this principle applies universally, in the same way, it would not be right for other countries to meddle or sanction the United States for matters relating to our domestic affairs.

As policymakers in the U.S. and EU continue to push for legislation geared to create economic sanctions on Russia, audiences must consider its implications, alongside understanding Alexei Navalny’s political history. Looking ahead, Western leaders must pursue diplomatic efforts through dialogue and conversation to solve the Navalny situation. Pushing policies in the U.S., such as the Holding Russia Accountable for Malign Activities Act, could have disastrous consequences, as the Kremlin has already threatened to cut off ties with the EU if sanctions are to be imposed, which foreshadows the likelihood of a deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. Diplomacy and dialogue must be pursued by the U.S., Russia, and other EU member states in order to limit the economic consequences on ordinary Russians and to avoid the collapse of already fragile relations between the West and Russia.