Tanzina: Just weeks into the Biden administration, actions from the Kremlin are putting US-Russia relations in the spotlight. Over the past week, thousands of Russians have been arrested for protesting in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. On Tuesday, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison.
A court found that he had violated the terms of a 2014 conviction by traveling to Germany last year to recover from nerve agent poisoning. Navalny has said that President Putin was behind that poisoning, an allegation that the Kremlin has denied. This despite a conversation between President Joe Biden President Putin last week, where Biden asked that Navalny be released. I'm joined now by Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and staff writer at The New Yorker. Masha, thanks for being with us.
Masha: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: What's your reaction to Navalny's sentencing and what this means for the battle between Putin and Navalny?
Masha: The sentence was perfectly expected at this point. This despite the sentence being illegal. Navalny got a suspended sentence in this completely trumped-up case. He complied with the terms of the suspended sentence. Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights, which by Russian law is the top appellate court in the Russian court system, the European Court of Human Rights actually threw this case out saying that it was politically motivated. I know this is a little difficult for Americans to imagine that an international court could have this kind of power.
It's like, if there were a court case in Massachusetts, it had gone all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had ruled that the case had no merit and then Massachusetts said, "Whatever, we're going to send the guy to jail anyway." The case is trumped up. The sentence was already served. There were no parole violations. Basically, this is retaliation for Navalny surviving the poisoning.
Tanzina: Well, and now Navalny and Putin have, at least observers are saying that a lot of this is because of Putin's shock and surprise that Navalny is actually getting the level of support that he has gotten from Russians. Is that right?
Masha: I think that gets it a little backwards. Navalny survived an assassination attempt carried out by the Russian secret police and then decided to return to Russia, which is something that shocked the Kremlin. People don't usually come back to Russia after an assassination attempt. In fact, the Kremlin has been very effective at keeping people out of the country by threatening them with criminal prosecution, which is, of course, the second thing they did. They basically told Navalny that if he came back to Russia, he would be arrested, which is exactly what happened. The protests broke out after his arrest.
Tanzina: Was Navlyn's coming back in a way, attempting to call Putin's bluff?
Masha: Navalny simply refused to be in political exile. He thinks of himself as a Russian politician.
Tanzina: How has Putin handled protests historically, because we know that thousands of Russians have been arrested so far?
Masha: This is the largest crackdown that we have seen. Putin has always been afraid of protests and has always arrested people in response. The thousands of people over the course of two weeks. Thousands and thousands, and thousands is unprecedented.
Tanzina: Masha, President Biden got on a call with Vladimir Putin and told him that he had concerns over Navalny'ss imprisonment, and yet they imprisoned him anyway. What does that tell us already about the tone of the relationship between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin?
Masha: Well, this doesn't really tell us anything new. Remarkably, in the Kremlin readout of the call, there was no mention of Navalny. The Putin administration has been impervious to international pressure since the beginning. The Biden administration is different from other US administration's, in that this is the first administration since the Cold War that has not come in promising the American people that it will improve relations with Russia, which I think is a great sign. It's a great sign of realism. It's a great sign of realism just because it's impossible at this point to improve Russian-American relations.
I also think it's a sign that this administration understands it's morally wrong to strive to improve relations with a dictatorship.
Tanzina: Now, is that Masha, because of four years of the Trump presidency and what that did to US-Russia relations, which I think we should talk a little bit about. Is the Biden administration responding to that as well?
Masha: I'm not sure. Probably it made it easier for the Biden administration to not focus on improving relations with Russia, because Trump so discredited the very idea of improving relations with Russia. Despite all of Trump's rhetoric, the Russian-American relations actually continued their long time nosedive during the Trump administration. There was no improvement.
The Trump administration certainly did not put any pressure on Russia or any other international human rights violator to stop violating human rights. The Biden administration in this sense is returning to the traditional American policy of at least reminding these dictatorships that they're violating their obligations.
Tanzina: Does Vladimir Putin have a long-term plan for dealing with Alexei Navalny and his followers at this point or is this a wait and see, "We'll put him in jail," and then we'll decide what to do after that?
Masha: I don't think Vladimir Putin has a long-term plan about anything ever. I used to think by watching humans even calculating the amount of time that it took him to think about something that he had a planning horizon of six weeks, but it seems to have shortened. With Navalny, I don't think they believed that he was going to come back to Russia, even though he had said to the media. He had said in an interview with me, for example, that he was definitely going to return to Russia when he was done recovering from the poisoning.
They scrambled to try to scare him away when he actually announced that he was coming back. It was all cooked up in the course of days. They diverted his plane to a different airport to avoid protesters on eight minutes notice. They took him to a police precinct and had a fake trial inside a police precinct to be able to keep him under arrest. This is seat-of-your-pants way of dealing with Navalny. As for protesters, they are responding with a large scale crackdown, they're arresting thousands of people. They don't have anywhere to put the people that they have arrested.
One of the most horrifying details of the last few days is that hundreds of people who were arrested over the weekend in St. Petersburg and Moscow, overall, there were arrests in 90 different cities. In those big cities were arrest numbered in the many hundreds. 40 hours after they were first detained they were still in unheated police vans, parked outside of detention centers waiting in line to be admitted. People had not received any food, they were not allowed to leave the van to go to the bathroom.
These are torture conditions but they also tell us just how little planning, logics, strategy, anything is in this crackdown. I think that what Putin is doing is he's always been afraid of protest. He has always I think had this almost magical idea that he could somehow be dislodged by protest. Now he has been watching Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus who basically does not care that his entire country has been marching in protest for five months. People have been arrested, people have been tortured.
In Belarus, several thousand people, it's now been documented, have been subjected to torture, and yet people can keep coming out to protest and nothing happens. Lukashenko, he has no legitimacy, but he just refuses to leave office. That has to have been an inspiring example to Putin who realizes he doesn't have to react to these protests with anything other than brute force.
Tanzina: Masha, in terms of the US-Russia relationship going forward, that Navalny is just one piece of this. As we look at, for example, the first year potentially, the first 100 days even under the Biden administration. What are some of the priorities that you see for our Russian envoys and our strategy with Russia right now?
Masha: Relationship with Russia are clearly not a priority for the Biden administration, which I think is understandable, because this is an area in which progress is all but impossible. There is an arms treaty that was signed, I think this was the only positive item on the Russia agenda. Other than that, the Biden's administration really has to consider what it's going to do about Navalny, about Russian interference in American politics.
There are a number of sanctions questions under consideration. There are also sanctions that basically have to kick in almost automatically because of the use of chemical weapons. The real question is, is the Biden's administration going to choose harsher measures or milder ones? The logic of using milder measures is it hopes that it can somehow influence Putin's behavior, Putin's policies. I don't think it has any illusions about that.
I'm hoping that they're looking at harsher sanctions because at least they're the right thing to do. We can't influence Putin but we can take a moral stand.
Tanzina: Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist and staff writer at The New Yorker. Masha, thanks so much.
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