The alleged poisoning of a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin this week drew immediate rebukes from U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and will likely serve as another key test for President Trump’s relationship with the autocratic leader.
Alexei Navalny, considered the unofficial leader of the Russian opposition and a noted Putin critic, is reportedly in a coma and intensive care after drinking tea laced with poison. The news of his illness was a shocking reminder of Moscow’s brutality and a possible warning that the government is becoming increasingly bold in its actions against the opposition.
A senior Trump administration official called the reports “deeply troubling” and said the White House is following the situation closely.
The circumstances surrounding the suspected attack on Navalny is still unclear, although poisonings are viewed as a familiar tool used by Putin against opposition figures, said Thomas Pickering, a former senior State Department official and a former ambassador to Russia.
“If it were a poisoning, then almost everybody will believe it goes back to Putin,” he said, “and there is a very significant possibility that that is a correct judgement.”
Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, wrote on Twitter that this is the second time the opposition figure has suffered a poisoning, the first time occurring while he was in a detention center a year earlier.
Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers expressed outrage over the fate of Navalny, a prominent anti-Putin figure who has built a reputation on exposing corruption among Russia’s political elite.
They pointed to a deliberate attack on his life.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the suspected poisoning “at least the 31st assassination attempt against a Putin opponent/defector.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put the blame on Putin.
“There are few greater heroes of democracy than Alexei Navalny. It was probably just a matter of time before Putin tried to kill him. But this is awful news,” he wrote in a Tweet.
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the chair and co-chair of the Helsinki commission, which monitors human rights among the 57 nations of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said Navalny was “targeted for supporting freedom and democracy in their country.”
“These attacks are intended to silence dissent, but instead they highlight the cruelty, intolerance, and lawlessness of the Putin regime,” they said in a statement. “We hope there will be consequences for those who carried out this crime and for those who approved it.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for the perpetrators to be held accountable “for this cowardly attack.”
Trump’s response to Putin’s alleged impunity will be closely watched amid the president’s affinity for the autocratic leader despite the volumes of evidence of Russia’s antagonizing behavior toward the U.S.
“I wouldn’t hold a great deal of hope that Mr. Trump would call Putin to task if this were determined to be poisoning,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, a former State Department official who served in Moscow and a former ambassador to Belarus and the Republic of Georgia.
Neither the White House nor the State Department had put out an official statement on the alleged poisoning as of Thursday afternoon.
Trump has taken a number of steps to avoid confrontation with Putin. He told Axios last month that he never raised the issue in a phone call with Putin of reports that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
He has further refrained from committing to blocking Russia’s participation later this year in the Group of Seven — the group of world leaders from which Moscow was kicked out for invading Ukraine in 2014.
Most recently, Trump is reportedly angling for a meeting with Putin ahead of the November election in an effort to advance a nuclear arms control agreement, NBC news reported, but that has stalled over efforts by the U.S. to include China in any new deal.
Despite the outcry, the suspected poisoning of a Russian opposition figure taking place on Russian soil leaves little room for the U.S. to respond in any meaningful way.
“This is an internal [Russian] matter, all we would probably do is to ask for a complete, thorough investigation,” Yalowitz said.
This is a different situation from when the U.S. responded to the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent who had provided information to the United Kingdom’s intelligence service MI6, and his daughter Yulia in the English town of Salisbury.
U.K. security services determined that Putin had directed the attack on the Skripals in a move seen as a flagrant disregard for Britain’s sovereignty and a gross violation of international law and prohibitions on chemical weapons.
Following the lead of the U.K., the Trump administration responded by closing the Russian consulate in Seattle and expelling 48 Russian diplomats in the U.S. and 12 Russian intelligence officials based at the United Nations. A second round of sanctions put in place a yearlong ban on international loans to Russia and barred U.S. banks from transacting with the Russian government.
The American public today has an appetite for tough action on Russia, and Putin in particular. Polling by the Pew Research Center found only 18 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Russian leader, and about 72 percent say it is very or somewhat likely that Russia or a foreign government will interfere in the 2020 presidential election.
U.S. intelligence agencies have warned the public that Russia is actively interfering in the U.S. election in favor of Trump.
But the president has downplayed that kind of threat and has dismissed as a “hoax” intelligence investigations into the ties between officials of his 2016 campaign, Russia intelligence officers and Russians who have connections to the Kremlin.
Sanctions are a tool most likely to be used by the president if there is evidence Navalny is the victim of an assassination attempt.
But Pickering, the former senior State Department official, said the effect of a further tightening of sanctions on Russia is likely to come across as a “rap across the knuckles.”
Angela Stent, author of “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest,” agreed that unless an individual is identified as responsible for the alleged poisoning, sanctions aren’t really effective.
“I think what this highlights really is the very little leverage that we have with Russia and particularly in a time where the relationship so far is so bad.”