February 16, 2024 - 4:30pm

The district in which Alexei Navalny was imprisoned has announced his death. A short statement said that the Russian dissident had “felt unwell” following a walk, after which he “almost immediately lost consciousness”. An emergency medical team tried and failed to resuscitate him. 

News of his death broke as strategic leaders and thinkers converged in Germany for the annual Munich Security Conference. “Whatever story they tell,” Kamala Harris said during the opening hours of the conference, “Let us be clear: Russia is responsible.” Another notable Munich attendee is Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya. “I want Putin, his entire entourage, Putin’s friends, and his government to know that they will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family, to my husband,” she stated upon making an impromptu speech following the news. “And this day will come very soon.”

Navalny was undoubtedly a brave man. The Russian state first tried to imprison him in 2012, charging (and convicting) him for a timber embezzling operation. Staff soon discovered a camera hidden in his office, pointing directly to his desk. He took it on the chin. “This is a war,” he told one reporter. “I also want to take away everything these guys have. So why be surprised that they want to take everything from me?” State observation — and persecution — would only increase. 

In 2013, Navalny ran for Mayor of Moscow, winning 27% of the vote. A few months later, mass protests against Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych spooked the Kremlin further. One former Putin bodyguard publicly announced that he would turn Navalny “into a juicy slab of meat”. 

Navalny’s investigations into corruption and crime within Putin’s Russia took guts: he once managed to get one of his would-be assassins to confess to lining his underwear with Novichok. His investigation into a vast, mysterious chateau on the Black Sea coast revealed the complex structure of ownership carefully designed to mask the true owner, costs, and sources of funding for the palace — all of which came back to the Russian President. 

In 2020, Navalny suffered the state’s wrath, falling into a coma after being poisoned with Novichok onboard a Siberian flight. Having recovered after several months of treatment in Germany, he decided to fly back to Moscow. Boarding his plane, Navalny was greeted by dozens of fellow passengers recording his every movement and celebrating him as a hero. He would no doubt have realised that his chances of ever being able to leave again were slim.

Navalny — who sought to liberalise the Russian political system through criticism of the government — was nevertheless not a liberal by the standards of the West. He allied himself with ultranationalist Russians, and in 2007 called for the deportation of migrants. In Russia he was cast as a far-Right activist, even a fascist. For some commentators, Navalny had the potential to become Russia’s Aung San Suu Kyi. 

His death appears to be the latest in a long line of transparent political assassinations committed by the Kremlin both inside and out of Russia. Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said today that Putin “should be held accountable for the death of Alexei Navalny”. How could this manifest? The most obvious recourse would be to extend sanctions against further Russian individuals. This will have some impact, but is unlikely to be significant: Moscow has been very careful to maintain and protect its industry and economy, even on a war footing for two years. 

With recent Nato-critical rhetoric from the current Republican frontrunner for the US presidency, those in the West who wish to punish Russia for the death of its most significant and effective critic will have to carefully judge how this might be done. More, they’ll have to figure out who is willing to do it.

Katherine Bayford is a doctoral researcher in politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham.