Biden’s Foreign Policy Is Beginning On A Bad Foot—We Must Be Wary

Chloe Duncan-Wald, Contributing Writer

On February 2nd, a Russian judge sentenced Alexei Navalny to three and a half years in a prison colony for violating parole. It wasn’t clear what laws Navalny broke, aside from returning to Russia after recovering from his assassination attempt, when he survived the Kremlin-favorite poison, Novichok. During Navalny’s arrest, the live footage he recorded spurred record-breaking anti-corruption protests, further inspired by Navalny’s video exposés of Kremlin officials, including Vladimir Putin. Navalny is backed globally, the US officially joining ranks in support after his recent detainment. To date, Navalny is the most prominent Russian to counter Putin’s hegemony; however, he lacks political experience, has espoused abrasive and nationalist rhetoric, and is unclear in his agenda. Supporters globally should be wary of unequivocally supporting a movement without plans for democracy, with a leader that aligns with many of Putin’s most xenophobic ideologies. Navalny supported crackdowns on ethnic minorities and was recorded referring to Muslim immigrants as “cockroaches.” Nevertheless, his popularity is apparent in the West, with millions of international followers on his blog, Youtube, and Twitter. The Wall Street Journal published an article on Navalny describing him as “The Man Vladimir Putin Fears the Most,” displaying his international sway. But can Navalny establish democracy? Is the United States justified in supporting him, even positioning itself towards sanctioning Russia? 

…the support for Navalny should not be motivated by advancing the US’s other foreign policy agendas.”

When Biden spoke about the US and Russia’s future, he formally called for Navalny’s release. Yet, this statement could have problematic motives and even worse effects. Not only do speeches such as these typically precede sanctioning efforts, but Biden intended to introduce the type of foreign policy that Americans will see for the next four years. It is vital to know that the US and Russia have had long and fraught relations; recent administrations under Bush, Obama, and Trump, have all displayed agitated foreign policy with Putin’s Russia. Sanctioning Russia will be beneficial for appeasing US relations with the European Union (EU) more than anything. Historic contention with the USSR further explains such zealous support of Navalny and eager collaboration with the EU. While many can understand the Biden administration’s desire to reconcile with the EU—both a significant trading partner and an ally estranged under the Trump administration—the support for Navalny should not be motivated by advancing the US’s other foreign policy agendas.

Navalny is anti-Putin, and the US relishes this, yet they know he can’t ensure an improved Russia. After much interventionism, the US understands that unsubstantial plans for fortifying democracy don’t have a likelihood of installing permanent change, especially when the movement’s figurehead is imprisoned. If Navalny had a promising shot, US support, and certainly global support, would be much more formidable than sanctioning. It’s illogical to believe that Russia would simply release Navalny, even after sanctions. Still, by advocating for Navalny’s release, the US has an easy window for punishing Russia economically. 

Supporting democracy over authoritarianism should absolutely be the standard. Nevertheless, Russia’s domestic affairs are much more nuanced than a simple battle of good versus evil, and Americans must be hesitant to second the US government’s stance on the matter. It’s questionable that sanctions of any sort would aid the movement; they’ll likely disempower Russian citizens more than debilitate the targeted government, destroy the economy, increase unemployment, and provide more power to corrupt officials. 

US support of Navalny is dubious—possibly encouraging democracy, but undoubtedly furthering the US’s longstanding contempt for Russia. The US should take a step back and reconsider its foreign policy platform for the future. Embargoes should not be the catalyst of encouraging democracy and US foreign policy, at least not until the US can establish a stable democracy of its own.