White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday declared that when it comes to the Biden administration’s countering of Russian aggression, “we certainly don’t intend to follow the same pattern as the previous administration.”
But at least as U.S. policy pertains to Russian opposition journalist, Alexei Navalny, Psaki then did just that — she copied the Trump administration’s strategy of underplaying relevant U.S. intelligence assessments, so as to avoid taking immediate action over Vladimir Putin’s recent poisoning and subsequent arrest of Navalny.
Navalny was poisoned by Russian FSB intelligence service officers as he traveled in Siberia last August. After a failed FSB-led attempt to conceal evidence of the poisoning, Navalny was evacuated to Germany. Doctors and military intelligence specialists in Berlin soon confirmed that Navalny had been poisoned with a variant of the Novichok neurotoxin (the same highly-concentrated nerve agent class used by Russian intelligence officers on British soil in 2018). Navalny recovered from his poisoning and returned to Russia on January 17. He was then arrested on false fraud charges and has been detained in prison ever since.
Navalny’s safety in prison cannot be assumed. His detention has sparked widespread protests in numerous Russian cities, and Navalny’s latest reporting on a secret $1 billion palace owned by Vladimir Putin will have further infuriated the Russian leader. As the journalist himself wryly commented on Friday, he does not intend to commit suicide in prison. Navalny knows that Vladimir Putin may stage an accident.
Time, then, is of the essence when it comes to U.S. efforts to persuade Putin that the benefits of eliminating Navalny will be far outweighed by the costs of doing so.
Now consider White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s comments on Monday. Asked whether the president intends to hold Putin personally responsible for Navalny’s health, Psaki dissembled. Biden had “tasked his national security team, his intelligence team, with assessing a range of issues as it relates to our relationship with Russia, including the Solar Winds [cyber] breach, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, which we have been quite outspoken about from our national security adviser to the State Department,” she said. “We want to see that review conclude.”
This poor excuse for Biden’s continued silence replicates the Trump administration’s flawed response to Navalny’s poisoning
In fact, the U.S. intelligence assessment is established and clear. The FSB assassination team failed to kill Navalny, and instead panicked as he was evacuated to a hospital outside Russia, where his life was saved. Calling their Moscow headquarters for further instructions, the FSB team inadvertently enveloped themselves in the National Security Agency’s signal intelligence dragnet (this panicked, shoddy tradecraft also allowed the team’s movements and identity to be back-traced by investigative journalists). The U.S. intelligence community then established line-of-control evidence between the FSB and the Kremlin’s national security council. When it comes to the use of Novichok, the line of authority necessarily ends up with Putin.
The evidence of what happened to Navalny is clear. The Biden administration should therefore stop wasting time that Navalny might not have. Biden has good options — he can sanction FSB director Alexander Bortnikov and threaten more wide-ranging economic sanctions if Navalny’s life or long-term freedom is jeopardized. Like all the top officials in Putin’s inner circle, Bortnikov has assets that he wants to protect from U.S. sanctions. But Psaki is deliberately misleading the public when she implies that the intelligence picture is unclear.