U.S. outrage at Navalny’s death turns into a rallying cry

U.S. outrage at Navalny’s death turns into a rallying cry

The shock waves of Alexei Navalny’s death rippled across the Atlantic.

In Washington, President Joe Biden blamed Vladimir Putin for the dissident’s shock demise. Hours earlier, Vice President Kamala Harris did the same in Munich. On Capitol Hill and in the halls of a swank hotel in the Bavarian capital, lawmakers in both parties called for punishing Russia and further arming Ukraine.

And in the electoral arena, both the Biden campaign and Nikki Haley, the last major Republican challenger to Donald Trump, assailed the former president for his past praise of Putin.

Navalny’s death provided a capstone to a week in which Russia once again became the central issue of concern across American politics, including new intelligence on Moscow’s anti-satellite capabilities in space and in the entrenched debate over Ukraine aid on Capitol Hill. The news also shook officials and dignitaries at the Munich Security Conference, who expressed outrage and shed tears at his death.

“Like millions of people around the world, I’m not surprised and outraged by the news,” Biden said at the White House. “Make no mistake: Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death. What has happened to Navalny is more proof of Putin’s brutality” — a near word-for-word echo of what Harris told the conference’s audience.

Biden praised Navalny’s bravery, saying that “even in prison, he was a powerful voice for the truth.” He savaged Putin for targeting citizens of other countries while also inflicting “terrible crimes on his own people.”

Navalny, 47, Putin’s longtime political opponent, died in prison Friday, according to Russia’s federal prison service. While the prison service said he collapsed during a walk, there was immediate speculation that Putin had a hand in his death. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose country has been fighting off Russia’s invasion for nearly two years, said “it’s obvious” that Putin killed him.

Biden also used the moment to urge House Republicans to pass aid for Ukraine, saying “it’s about time they step up, don’t you think,” instead of going on an extended recess, which he called a “two-week vacation.”

Trump, who has repeatedly praised Putin, last week again rattled global capitals with his declaration that he would encourage Russia to invade NATO countries that don’t contribute their fair share to the alliance. He underscored that position on Wednesday. As president, Trump threatened to pull the United States out of NATO, which was formed after World War II as a bulwark to Russian aggression and is built on a mutual defense pact.

Biden deemed Trump’s remarks “un-American” and his campaign blasted the president’s likely general election foe in a new ad that was scheduled to be released Friday even before Navalny’s death. Though many Republicans once again downplayed Trump’s remarks, his lone remaining GOP primary opponent, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, delivered a scathing attack on Trump on Friday.

“Putin did this. The same Putin who Donald Trump praises and defends,” Haley said in a social media post. “The same Trump who said: ‘In all fairness to Putin, you’re saying he killed people. I haven’t seen that.’”

Washington has also been focused in recent days on the fate of a $95 billion bipartisan aid package to Ukraine. The new bill emerged from a border security compromise attempt and passed the Senate, but it has faced fierce resistance from the GOP leadership in the House.

The Biden administration, which has pledged to stand with Ukraine, has warned that Kyiv would soon run out of ammunition and military equipment without it. Though Europe has upped its commitment to Kyiv, Russia was poised to score its first significant victories on the battlefield in months.

And even as the Ukraine package bogged down, a new threat from Moscow shadowed the U.S. Capitol when the revelation that Russia is working on an antisatellite weapon in space using nuclear technology and prompted the unusual — and frightening — public request from a Republican lawmaker to the White House to declassify the threat.

Biden’s remarks came hours after Vice President Kamala Harris also blamed the Kremlin for Navalny’s reported death, hinting at a strong American response in the days ahead.

“Whatever story they tell, let us be clear, Russia is responsible,” Harris said at the start of her speech in Munich, adding the Biden administration would have more to say about its response soon. The vice president noted that the United States had yet to confirm the news, but if it’s true, “this would be a further sign of Putin’s brutality.”

Neither Biden nor Harris was specific about what the U.S. would do to the Kremlin, with the vice president adding: “We will have more to say on this later.”

It’s still not immediately clear what measures the United States could take. The Biden administration has already deployed an exhaustive array of sanctions and other steps to isolate Russia in the nearly two years since Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin, who has largely managed to avoid the economic calamity those sanctions sought, has also continued to stifle opposition and now, U.S. officials believe, has regained a tight grip on power just six months after a would-be coup reached a few hundred miles of Moscow.

Lawmakers attending Munich’s transatlanticism fest called on the Biden administration to place new sanctions on Russia and enforce existing ones, closing loopholes the Kremlin has exploited for months.

Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a House Armed Services Committee member, said there was another way to get back at Putin: “Pass the supplemental. That’s it. Let’s destroy his Army. The Ukrainians know how to do that, so let’s help them do it.”

Even Speaker Mike Johnson, who has long hinted he wouldn’t bring the $95 billion aid bill for Ukraine and other hot spots to the floor, hinted at a change of heart. “In the coming days, as international leaders are meeting in Munich, we must be clear that Putin will be met with united opposition,” he said in a fiery statement.

News of Navalny’s death spread through Munich’s Bayerischer Hof hotel in the early morning, leading to gasps and a blip of silence. Cramped hallways filled with talk about the passing of the staunch Putin critic, with some attendees suggesting the Kremlin timed it to the conference.

Eyes on are the Biden administration in part because the U.S. president has previously made strong statements about Russia’s treatment of him. After Biden met with Putin at a summit in Geneva in 2021, he was asked what would happen if Navalny were to die in Russian custody. Biden said that in his discussions with Putin, “I made it clear to him that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia.”

On Friday, Biden said the U.S. had already punished Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated the United States won’t respond to Navalny’s death alone.

“We’ll be talking to many other countries concerned about Alexei Navalny, and especially if these reports bear out to be true,” Blinken said in an appearance on the sidelines of the conference.

The Russian prison services said that Navalny lost consciousness after taking a walk in the prison where he was moved late last year. He was last seen on Thursday, when he had appeared in a court hearing via video link, smiling behind the bars of a cell and making jokes.

In recent years, Navalny had emerged as Putin’s most potent critic, one who had made public accusations of the Russian leaders’ widespread corruption and who had drawn thousands to protest alongside him in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He survived a 2020 poisoning attempt with a nerve agent, convalescing in Germany and, despite facing certain incarceration, opted to return to Russia the following year.

He received a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence upon his February 2021 return. In March 2022, he received a nine-year sentence for embezzlement and fraud in a trial that international observers denounced as “politically motivated” and a “sham.” And in August 2023, he was sentenced to 19 years in prison for “extremism,” which his defenders said was an effort to muzzle him.

He faced increasingly harsh conditions, including repeated stints in solitary confinement and a recent transfer to the Siberian prison where he died. Still, he maintained a presence on social media, while members of his team continued to publish investigations into Russia’s corrupt elite from exile.

Some of the 44 American lawmakers in Munich also had warnings for Putin regarding Navalny’s death.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also attending the Munich conference, said that “the great heroes of freedom and liberty never really die. They become martyrs and symbols that often become more powerful in death than in life.”

“It’s likely that Putin and his stooges will rue the day they locked Navalny away to die,” Murphy added.

Ward reported from Munich. Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

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