Update, February 4, 2021: In pointed remarks delivered at the U.S. State Department, President Joe Biden criticized Russia's handling of Navalny and reiterated demands for his release. Recounting his first phone call as president with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Biden said: "I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia's aggressive actions – interfering with our election, cyber attacks, poisoning its citizens – are over."
On February 2, the Moscow City Court sentenced leading Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny to 3 1/2 years in prison. The authorities imposed tight security measures across Moscow ahead of Navalny’s sentencing. The areas around the court building and the Kremlin have been cordoned off by riot police and the National Guard.
Along with Navalny’s relatives, colleagues and journalists, diplomats from 13 countries and special European Union representatives were present in the courtroom during sentencing.
The Russian Foreign Ministry objected that the “collective attendance” of foreign diplomats was a “political act” and interference in Russia’s affairs.
Immediately after the hearing, the United Nations, European Union, United States and others called for Navalny’s immediate release and warned of economic and political consequences if the Kremlin refuses to free him.
The European Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell Fontelles, informed Russia that he would deliver a joint note of protest over Navalny’s treatment. In the U.S., Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russia’s treatment of both Navalny and his supporters.
“We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights,” Blinken said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the West’s reaction “hysterical,” and warned “not to mistake Russia’s gentle diplomacy” for a sign of weakness. He promised a “hard response” to any “anti-Russian” measures.
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov – who, like his boss, avoids mentioning Navalny by name – expressed hope that European diplomacy “would not be so stupid” as to tie future relations with Russia to “the case of this pretrial detention center resident”. Peskov said the EU had frozen its relations with Russia “undeservedly and unjustifiably.”
Answering questions by phone during a virtual news conference on February 3, Peskov said that he had no comment about the court ruling and played down the impact of Navalny’s case in Russia.
"It is unnecessary to talk about any significant impact” on the political situation in Russia, Peskov said.
Peskov’s assertion of no significant impact is false. For one, Navalny has been the leading opposition player in Russian politics for the last decade. And his poisoning, arrest and sentencing have touched off the most intense nationwide protests in years, triggering a brutal security response.
Even as Peskov spoke, Moscow was under intense security, with some streets and areas locked down. There and in other cities, police had shut down access to central areas following Navalny’s January 17 arrest. As supporters of Navalny rallied publicly, riot police bludgeoned and arrested them. Police stuffed protesters into vans. Some waited for hours to be processed by overloaded courts and detention centers.
Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, rose to political prominence before the 2012 presidential elections, when Putin was running for his third term in the Kremlin. Navalny helped lead hundreds of thousands of people in nationwide anti-Putin protests, the largest in Russia’s modern history.
Since then, Navalny has risen to Putin’s No. 1 critic. His influence reaches beyond Moscow, and his anti-corruption activism remains an enduring and dominant political story, fed by exposes such as his “Putin’s Palace” video, posted on YouTube last month and viewed by tens of millions in Russia.
Authorities have launched multiple criminal investigations targeting Navalny, who also has been attacked on the streets, detained and arrested. Navalny has spent months under house arrest, and recently survived a poisoning attempt that he and others blamed on the Kremlin.
Navalny was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport upon his return from Berlin, where he had spent nearly six months recovering from the poisoning. While there, three specialized European labs independently concluded that the poison used was a Soviet-era military nerve agent.
Although the Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement, an investigation by the news website Bellingcat, conducted with Navalny’s participation, concluded that Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, had planned the poisoning and took pains to cover up evidence. The poison, called Novichok, had been applied to Navalny’s underwear, they reported.
Navalny’s arrest was for an alleged parole violation from a 2014 theft conviction that he maintains was politically motivated. In that case, Navalny received a 3½-year suspended sentence. He appealed twice to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and both times the ECHR ruled that the Russian state had violated Navalny’s right to a fair and just trial.
At this week’s sentencing, the Moscow court allowed the news media in the room but prohibited any photo/video/audio recordings. However, an audio recording of Navalny’s speech to the court has been published on YouTube and shared by independent media in Russia.
Despite being repeatedly interrupted by the judge, Navalny accused Putin of personally ordering his poisoning, arrest and prison sentence.
“Giving that I am entirely under control of the people who love smearing things with chemical weapons, nobody would, probably, bet a penny on my life. But even now, as I stand here, I say that I will fight you,” Navalny said. He demanded freedom for himself and for all Russian political prisoners.
According to the Russian rights group Memorial, 423 political prisoners were being held in Russian jails as of the end of 2020.