A few of the crime group’s members happen to be incarcerated in the same penal colony as opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The FSB officer asks the lieutenant to tell his boss that if Navalny suffers a deadly beating a few months from now, said crime group would find its competitors quickly removed from one or more lucrative rackets. The boss should also know that his assumed control of the racket would be protected by the FSB. This offer is a one-time thing, the officer says. Whatever your boss decides, the officer tells the lieutenant, any mention of the FSB will result in you and the boss forced into out-the-window flying lessons.
A few months later, Navalny suffers a lethal brain injury after being attacked by a prisoner who had been showing signs of mental instability in the preceding weeks. The prisoner is charged with murder and labeled mentally ill by the prison service. A few weeks later, leaders of the crime group’s major competitor are arrested. The boss finds himself in charge of one of that group’s more lucrative skimming rackets. A year later, the boss and the local FSB chief are sharing the occasional vodka. The low-ranking FSB officer has either been promoted or disappeared.
This is a hypothetical scenario, of course. But it is both credible and deserving of your close attention. Because on Thursday, Navalny was transferred to a penal colony where he will serve more than two years in prison. This follows Navalny’s conviction on politically motivated charges directed by Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. But considering that Putin recently attempted to murder Navalny with a Novichok-class nerve agent, the dissident faces serious threat of death in prison.
Yes, Putin is too clever to have federal prison guards kill Navalny. Nor is it likely he would risk poisoning Navalny yet again. But the nature of the Russian penal colony system provides alternate means for Navalny’s demise. After all, Russian penal colonies tend to rely on a significant transfer of authority by prison officers to inmates. The idea is that powerful prisoners can access rewards and lenient treatment by taking on the role of de facto wardens. See how the hypothetical might become reality? That takes us to the White House. The Biden administration has suggested that it will soon impose sanctions on the Kremlin because of Navalny’s poisoning and persecution.
Accordingly, the Biden administration should work with the European Union and Britain to establish a snap-protocol for major new sanctions on Russia. These sanctions would snap into place the moment Navalny is killed in prison. To be clear, the protocol should be in addition to any sanctions already planned over Navalny’s persecution. U.S. leadership is indispensable here. Boris Johnson’s British government is in love with Russian funny money, and the EU’s present strategy against Russia is about as viable as an ice cube on the face of the sun. Still, both London and Brussels are aware that Putin is a major threat. If they are simultaneously pressured and protected under Washington’s orbit, they will support far more resolute action against the Kremlin.
What should the new sanctions protocol entail?
For a start, the Western allies should make clear that Navalny’s death in custody will result in a lockout of Russian finance from their markets. Let’s see if Putin looks kindly in the mirror when his oligarch enablers suddenly find their foreign assets seized. Putin’s Nord Stream II energy pipeline should also face the chop. Designed to ensure Europe’s energy dependence on the Kremlin for the next 50 years, the pipeline will also pummel Ukraine’s burgeoning energy export industry. Although 90% complete, Nord Stream II was nearly killed off by congressional sanctions introduced in early January. Unfortunately, the Biden administration is not enforcing those sanctions. Instead, Biden seems to believe European security is best served by bending the knee to one of Putin’s favorite leaders, Chancellor Angela Merkel. The allies’ strategic objective should be clear-eyed: helping Putin recognize that the costs of assassinating or otherwise seriously mistreating Navalny will be far higher than any benefits. Western intelligence-gathering efforts will also be valuable in this regard. The United States and Britain have at least two separate capabilities, for example, that could be rapidly employed to detect communications and activity related to Navalny and those associated with the penal facility. Crime groups inclined to support Navalny’s assassination should not be confident of a silent conspiracy. Still, if the Biden administration has any interest in protecting Navalny and Western credibility, it must introduce Putin to a snap-sanctions threat.