Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s sentencing in a Moscow courtroom on Tuesday came, fittingly, on Groundhog Day. The aptness has nothing to do with large rodents predicting the weather, but with the 1993 film starring Bill Murray, in which the helpless protagonist wakes up to an alarm clock that starts the same day over and over.
A Russian-style Groundhog Day is watching yet another brave ally in the fight for freedom swallowed up in the maw of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. One after another, opposition members, activists and journalists are exiled, murdered and imprisoned — over and over.
The international responses to these events also don’t change much. “Grave concerns” are expressed. Leaders or their deputies “call on the Russian government” to “immediately” release, cease or retreat from its latest abomination.
These statements seldom mention Putin by name, falling into the trap of treating Russia like a normal country with a normal government.
The cycle started again as we watched Navalny pulled from the courtroom to begin his sentence of 2½ years for doing nothing but opposing Putin — and for daring to survive his attempted assassination. Anyone who wants Russia to be strong and free is saddened and outraged — and weary of this endless repetition.
President Biden has a chance to finally get U.S. policy toward Putin’s Russia right. Biden spoke directly at Putin in his foreign policy speech on Thursday, an important step, but he will have to back it up or Putin will know it’s all for show.
President Donald Trump — well, the less said about him, the better. But Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama misguidedly tried to engage with Putin, and instead the world witnessed two decades of aggression and atrocity, a litany that includes invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, support for Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, interference in the U.S. presidential election, and assassinations — some attempted, some successful — of Putin’s critics, whether in Russia or elsewhere.
Engaging with dictatorships always fails. They must be isolated and contained, or else they spread their corruption to the free world — while using the profits from engagement to fund repression at home and aggression abroad.
The traditional recipes of international diplomacy are worthless against a mafia dictatorship that cares nothing for ideology or national interests. Hurting the Russian people doesn’t bother Putin, so sanctions must target him and his gang directly. Putin doesn’t care about left or right; he cares about money.
This is why Navalny’s focus on corruption and Putin’s personal wealth so infuriates him. Navalny knows what Putin cares about, and the West should learn, too, if it wants results.
First, end Putin’s asymmetrical advantage and treat his regime like it’s the target of a criminal investigation. Even if tracking down all the ill-gotten assets doesn’t lead to arrests, exposing that information would be invaluable. No doubt Navalny’s organization would know how to use it — his recent YouTube video about Putin’s billion-dollar palace has been viewed more than 100 million times.
Second, unite on anti-kleptocracy measures. The recent U.S. ban on anonymous shell companies is a strong move, and Europe should be pressed to coordinate. There will always be another off-shore haven, but they don’t all have the security and convenience that Putin’s oligarchs crave.
Third, stop giving Putin and other authoritarian regimes leverage and legitimacy with trade deals, memberships and access. Lecturing dictators about human rights is meaningless if you’re also taking their oil, gas and cash.
Existing sanctions regimes, many based on the laudable Magnitsky Act, suffer from piecemeal application. Some of Putin’s billionaire pals can no longer visit their money in Europe or the United States, but their families are welcome to. Blocking human rights abusers and their families from travel, freezing their assets and blocking their companies from doing business in the free world would finally take the gloves off and send the message that Putin is too toxic to keep around.
Biden was part of the Obama administration, but he wasn’t calling the shots. Now he should establish his own doctrine, a foreign policy based on democratic principles and strategic planning. America remains the only country capable of leading the free world, and the past four years have shown what happens when it doesn’t.
Stopping Putin will be difficult, but it will only be harder tomorrow. I said much the same here seven years ago, after Putin invaded Ukraine. The alarm clock has gone off many times since then; will Navalny’s imprisonment finally wake up Putin’s appeasers?
In “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray’s character tries everything to break out of the loop, from kidnapping the groundhog to suicide. In the end, what breaks the spell is his becoming a better human being.
Now the United States and its allies must look inside and examine their principles to break the terrible cycle they helped create in Russia. When that happens, and only when that happens, it will be the end of a very long day.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation.