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Biden administration tells Russia to free Navalny and protesters in stark departure from Trump era

Griffin Connolly
·3-min read
Russian law enforcement officers patrol Red Square amid a period of protests against the country’s detainment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. (AFP via Getty Images)
Russian law enforcement officers patrol Red Square amid a period of protests against the country’s detainment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. (AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration has reaffirmed its calls for Russia to immediately release political opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters who have been detained for protesting his incarceration.

The new president’s forceful denunciation of Russia’s newest manifestation of political repression marks a sharp departure from his predecessor, who would not say last September that Mr Navalny had been poisoned by Russian government agents, as had been widely reported and speculated.

“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Alexei Navalny,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday, echoing a statement from the State Department from over the weekend.

Ms Psaki reiterated calls for Russia to “cooperate” with the international investigation into Mr Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020 and to “credibly explain” the use of a chemical weapon, Novichok, on one of its own citizens.

Mr Navalny, who has recovered from the attack after treatment in a German hospital, returned to Moscow on a flight on 17 January and was promptly arrested. He is the most popular opposition political leader to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thousands of pro-Navalny protesters were detained by police over the weekend for demonstrating against his arrest. Many have been released.

Watch: WH calls on Russia to release Alexei Navalny

Last September, Mr Trump jumped on reporters for asking him about Mr Navalny’s poisoning and whether the Russian government had been behind the attack. The former president told the press they should be more focused on the wrongdoings of China than Russia.

“It’s tragic. It’s terrible, it shouldn’t happen. We haven’t had any proof yet, but I will take a look,” Mr Trump said of Mr Navalny’s poisoning.

Mr Trump was also criticised last year for failing to confront Mr Putin over reports that Russia had placed bounties on the heads of American and other western troops in Afghanistan.

Mr Trump denied that the alleged bounty scheme between Russia and the Taliban was ever brought to his attention, but the New York Times reported that an intelligence report about the scheme was included in the President’s Daily Brief of national security matters at least twice. Several outlets have reported that Mr Trump seldom read his daily brief in full while president.

Mr Biden has tasked the US intelligence community with compiling an official assessment of at least four areas of Russia’s malign activity: the massive SolarWinds hack that breached several US federal agencies and global supply chain data, Mr Putin’s interference in the 2020 election, the use of chemical weapons against Mr Navalny, and the alleged Afghan bounty scheme.

That review is “ongoing,” Ms Psaki said on Monday, saying that while she had no timeline for the review, it was an administration “priority.”

A wave of protests swept across Russia on Saturday in what appears to be the most significant challenge to Mr Putin’s authority in a decade.

At least 100,000, likely many more, took to the streets of more than a hundred towns and cities over eleven time zones, in the middle of a pandemic, in temperatures that in one case reached minus 50, and despite credible threats and occasional reality of a violent crackdown.

A spokesman for Mr Putin, Dmitry Peskov, blasted US officials’ statements supporting the protests and Mr Navalny’s release, saying such comments “indirectly constitute absolute interference in our internal affairs.”

The protesters, Mr Peskov noted, were arrested for taking part in “unauthorised actions.”

Watch: Thousands of Russians take to streets to demand release of jailed opposition leader

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