Can America Save Navalny?

Democracy Examined

As Biden Fails to Take Decisive Action, Navalny is Dying in Prison

Imprisoned, starved, and on the verge of death: this is the fate of Alexei Navalny, a leading critic of Vladimir Putin, and one of the greatest hopes for Russian democracy left in Russia.

Denied access to his doctors, he is said to be suffering from debilitating acute pain and “catastrophically high” potassium levels, a condition that can cause sudden heart failure. Since he began a hunger strike nearly three weeks ago to protest a lack of adequate medical care in prison, Navalny has lost more than 37 pounds. His spokeswoman now says that she expects him to die within “a matter of days.”

Navalny has been in one of Russia’s most notorious prisons since returning to Russia after a previous failed assassination attempt left him in a coma this August. Yet jailing him was not enough to deter his activism. Navalny has continued to threaten the regime from jail, calling for historic protests and releasing scathing critiques against Putin’s corruption.

Now, Navalny is fighting for his life once again. Though transferred to a prison infirmary, his supporters say he is still not receiving adequate care. His top aides called for massive protests on Wednesday to save Navalny’s life. As of Wednesday evening, rallies had taken place in MoscowSt. Petersburg, and dozens of other cities across Russia. Over 1,000 protestors have been arrestednationwide.

Meanwhile, the international community, including the United States, has responded to Navalny’s deteriorating condition with little more than words. For his part, Biden called the opposition leader’s jailing and neglect “unfair” and “inappropriate,” and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said there would be “consequences” if Navalny dies.

What can the world, and specifically the US, do to save Navalny?


The United States must take the lead in condemning Russia’s actions and holding Putin accountable. It is not enough to threaten consequences if Navalny dies. The Biden administration must act now to deter the Kremlin from killing him.

To date, the administration has failed to act decisively. In a call with Putin last Tuesday, President Biden did not inquire on Navalny’s condition or demand his release. Instead, the president proposed a summit with the Russian President, a move that offered mixed signals to Putin just weeks after Biden called him a “killer.” 

Moreover, though the United States imposed additional sanctions on Russia last Thursday in response to election interference and hacking, notably absent were steps that would cause immediate and personal discomfort to Putin and his allies. If Biden wants to keep Navalny alive, he should follow up in these three ways:

  1. Apply the Magnitsky Act to all 35 individuals identified by Navalny’s team as aiding and abetting his poisoning and detainment, including members of Putin’s inner circle. This will allow the U.S. to freeze their assets and impose travel bans on them and their families. 
  2. Authorize sanctions to impede the completion of the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a vital project to the Russian economy.
  3. Condemn Russia’s treatment of Navalny, not just to the press, but directly to Putin.

A rapid and decisive response is vital. Words and weak sanctions will not save Alexei Navalny’s life. If the world lets him die, Vladimir Putin will feel emboldened to murder future critics and to violate further international norms with impunity, which, with 100,000 Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border, could prove devastating.