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A most predictable death

The meaning of Alexei Navalny’s death—and life

A photo of Alexei Navalny stands at the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 16. Associated Press/Photo by Dmitri Lovetsky

A most predictable death
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On Friday morning, many in the United States awoke to the grim news of the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. It is likely not a coincidence he died—or, more accurately, was murdered at the hands of the Russian state—just as the Munich Security Conference started and right on the eve of Russia’s presidential “elections.” The former is the most important annual gathering of transatlantic policy leaders. The latter is a sham ritual to reinforce Putin’s hold on power. To the world leaders gathered in Munich and to his own public in Russia, Putin wanted to show his strength and defiance.

Instead, the murder of Navalny reveals Putin’s weakness and fear. After all, from his solitary confinement in a Siberian prison above the Arctic Circle in one of the remotest reaches of the planet, it would seem Navalny posed no threat to Putin. Yet Putin hated and feared Navalny because the dissident exposed the Russian dictator’s corruption and hypocrisy to Russia and the world. Putin has impoverished the Russian people with an average per capita GDP less than Mexico, while enriching himself and the servile oligarchs in his court who help him maintain power.

As just one example, Navalny’s video of Putin’s grotesque $1.3 billion palace on the Black Sea has received over 129 million views. As long as Navalny continued to draw breath and draw global attention, Putin simmered in resentment. Going back to Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, tyrants cannot abide their wickedness being revealed. Fear of exposure and fear of their own people is the besetting weakness of most dictators.

Navalny had also posed a political challenge, mounting multiple election campaigns in valiant but futile efforts to run against Putin for the Russian presidency. Twice Putin tried to kill Navalny by poisoning. Those attempts failed thanks to rapid medical interventions. In January 2021, after recovering in a hospital in Germany from the most recent assassination attempt, Navalny returned to Russia to continue his fight. It was one of the 21st century’s most remarkable displays of courage, for Navalny knew that doing so put him at almost certain risk of imprisonment or worse. Sure enough, upon his arrival at Moscow’s airport, Putin immediately threw him in prison.

Even from prison Navalny continued to torment Putin, smuggling out messages to the Russian people and his international supporters that mixed humor, resolve, and reminders of Putin’s corruption.

Navalny’s murder should put to rest the perverse affection for Putin voiced by some on the political right.

Navalny did this knowing well the fate that befell others who had challenged Putin. The execution of Navalny is but the latest in a grim litany of murders of Putin’s critics, such as Sergie Magnitsky, Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Nemtsov, and Anna Politskovkaya. Other valiant Russian dissidents, such as Vladimir Kara-Murza, remain imprisoned, in solitary confinement in Siberia and in precarious health. Collectively they bear witness that Putin has turned Russia into a personal fiefdom and a gangster state.

Navalny’s murder should also put to rest the perverse affection for Putin voiced by some on the political right. How does it feel to be an advocate for Putin now? How can you defend obsequious interviews and glorifications of Russia’s autocrat? There is no question that Putin’s enemies disappear, quite conveniently and with brazen cruelty.

What is a just response to Navalny’s murder, and to Putin’s ongoing oppression at home and aggression abroad? He should bear costs in blood and treasure. Two specific measures are in order.

First, the United States should work with our European allies to send the $300 billion in frozen Russian assets (currently sequestered in accounts in Belgium) to Ukraine to help sustain its economy and support its eventual reconstruction. Much of this money came from Putin’s ill-gotten gains, and should rightly be used as reparations for the ghastly damage he has inflicted on Ukraine.

Second, the United States should continue supporting Ukraine’s defense of itself against the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian military has the resolve and will to fight, but now finds itself in desperate straits due to dire weapons and ammunition shortfalls. Europe is doing its part, having just approved $54 billion in economic support for Ukraine. Yet only the United States has the capacity to provide Ukraine the military aid it needs. It is not a question of risking a single American soldier, but merely keeping faith with Ukrainians who are fighting and dying for their country.

As the Ukraine War passes its two-year anniversary, the best hope for a just end to the fighting is to equip the Ukrainian military to stand firm and force Putin to the negotiating table when he sees that he cannot win on the battlefield. Otherwise, his relentless bloodshed, against peaceful dissidents like Navalny and peaceful nations like Ukraine, will continue unabated.

William Inboden

William Inboden is professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

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