Alexei Navalny and the West’s Defence of Ukraine: If Not Now, When?

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The untimely death of Russian anti-corruption activist and freedom-fighter Alexei Navalny, the quintessential defender of democracy in one of the most autocratic regimes on the planet, was, sadly, all too predictable. As American president Joe Biden declared, “like millions of people around the world, I am literally both not surprised and outraged by the news.”

Biden went on to state that he considered Russian president Vladimir Putin to be personally responsible for Navalny’s sudden mysterious death, an opinion shared by many other leaders of western democracies. European Council President Charles Michel stated “The EU holds the Russian regime (solely) responsible for this tragic death” a sentiment echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and British prime minister Rishi Sunak. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was even more direct, declaring “It’s obvious he was killed by Putin.”   

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was equally blunt. “It really shows the extent to which Putin has — will — crack down on anyone who is fighting for freedom for the Russian people,” Trudeau said, and “it’s something that has the entire world being reminded of exactly what a monster Putin is.” Trudeau also noted that Navalny himself had always realized this could be a possible outcome of his principled opposition to Putin’s regime and saluted his “unparalleled courage.”

While observers and democracy advocates around the world called for immediate additional sanctions against the Russian dictator and his cronies, Trudeau also stressed the importance of ensuring Navalny’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain. “To be clear: He should never have been imprisoned to begin with. Let this be an important reminder that we must continue to promote, protect and defend democracy everywhere.” 

Clearly the most pressing threat to democracy today is the ongoing war in Ukraine, where a small democratic state is fighting for its life after an unprovoked invasion by the huge military machine of Vladimir Putin. The Canadian prime minister and other prominent western politicians such as British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and US Vice President Kamala Harris immediately drew the link between Navalny’s death and the west’s faltering support for Ukraine. All of them concluded that now is surely the time for the west to double down on its  commitment to Ukraine, which more than ever must be seen as the test case for the free world’s commitment to the survival of liberal democracy. Failure to defend Ukraine, they argued, will allow Putin to continue his assault in Europe and encourage other predatory dictators, such as China’s Xi Jinping, to proceed with their own plans for military aggression with impunity. President Biden agreed, stressing that “the failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will never be forgotten. And the clock is ticking. This has to happen. We have to help now.”

Not surprisingly Biden criticized House Republicans, who have not only stymied efforts by the president and Senate to deliver additional aid to Ukraine, but allowed the chamber to enter a two-week recess without moving on the Ukraine funding.“What are they thinking? My God,” Biden said. “This is bizarre, and it’s just reinforcing all of the concern – I won’t say panic but real concern – about the United States being a responsible ally.”

Some prominent Republicans broke ranks and attacked their colleagues for their stubborn refusal to approve such funding, arguing that it will only serve to encourage Putin. “There is no room in the Republican party for apologists for Putin. RIP Alexey Navalny,” former vice-president, Mike Pence wrote on social media. “Putin is a war criminal and only understands strength.” He urged Congress to “set aside the politics of the moment” and to pass legislation supporting aid to Ukraine.

Former South Carolina governor and Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley was equally blunt in her assessment of the situation. Responding to one supporter at a recent rally who asked why she thought the US should fund Ukraine, Haley described Putin as a tyrant and suggested to the questioner that defending Ukraine was in America’s national interest, since failing to help win the war over there might well end up with it expanding much closer to home. At the same time she argued this is “not about territory but ideas. This is bigger than Ukraine. This is a war about freedom, and it’s one we have to win.”

Her words should have reminded Americans of the stand taken by a former U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, nearly forty years ago. His famous “ich bin ein Berliner” declaration while visiting the Berlin Wall inspired a generation. Contrast this with the words of former president Donald Trump, who declared that he would not come to the rescue of any country that was behind in its NATO dues, thereby giving Vladimir Putin a free hand to invade any country in Europe with impunity. If a country was delinquent, Trump stated, he would encourage the Russians to “do whatever the hell they want.”

This is in stark contrast to the approach of earlier American presidents, including Harry Truman, who in 1948 initiated one of the most remarkable projects of its kind. It has long been taken as a given by political scientists that democracies do not make war on each other. The so-called “democratic peace theory” is an established concept in international relations.[i] One dramatic real world example of this theory’s validity is the European Union, winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, which was created in the aftermath of the Second World War in order to resolve longstanding issues in western and central Europe and promoted by the United States through its Marshall Plan.[ii]  Indeed, many experts are already speaking of a new Marshall Plan for the Ukraine once the war is won.[iii]   

This could be an elusive goal. The war in Ukraine is not going well. President Zelensky has recently completed yet another whirlwind tour of western capitals pleading for more support and underlining the critical shortage of crucial equipment and other challenges his troops face in the conduct of the country’s defence. As if to underline the significance of this challenge, reports of Navalny’s death came just hours before Ukrainian troops retreated from the besieged city of Avdivka they once controlled, a move that represents Russia’s biggest military advance since May 2023.

Make no mistake, the stakes could hardly be higher. If Alexei Navalny’s death does not inspire western democracies to up the ante in their defence of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin will be the clear winner and liberal democracy, already threatened, may well be heading for extinction. At the end of the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary “Navalny”, Putin’s greatest foe predicts his own demise and states, “You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me it means we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power….The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

[i] A. Mintz and N. Geva. “Why Don’t Democracies Fight Each Other? An Experimental Study” The Journal of Conflict Resolution. Vol. 37, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 484-503 (20 pages)

[ii] It is also worth noting that some experts argue the Marshall Plan was indirectly responsible for reinforcing and extending the Cold War, as Soviet Russia perceived the speedy economic and institutional recovery of Europe as a direct threat. However others have argued that, had America and the Allies also been more accommodating of the legitimate demands for reparations of the Soviets and extended the Marshall Plan to their former allies, this too could have been avoided. For more detail see