On Sept. 4, President Donald Trump said the United States had no proof yet that the most prominent Russian opposition leader had been poisoned by the Kremlin.
Never mind that German military scientists had confirmed earlier in the week “100%” that Alexei Navalny was poisoned by one of the world’s deadliest — and internationally banned — chemical agents developed by the Soviet Union. (Having fallen ill while he campaigned in Siberia, Navalny had been medevaced to a Berlin hospital.)
On Sept. 2, Western governments had condemned Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Navalny case an “attempted murder with a nerve agent” and demanded that Russia explain. The Kremlin, of course, denied any involvement.
Yet Trump insisted, despite irrefutable evidence, that “we have no proof yet.” He effectively mouthed the Kremlin line, while refusing to join other Western leaders in demanding answers from Putin. “No one has any doubts about German science,” says former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow. “Trump is just in a never-say-bad-word mode about Putin. This emboldens Putin to do more of the same.”
Even if Putin did not give the direct order, he has created the atmosphere in which political murder is normal. At a time when democratic norms are under severe threat — at home and abroad — Trump’s enabling of Putin has become a national security threat.
The list of unsolved political murders of Putin critics, including journalists, is so long that the world seems to have accepted them as some kind of normal.
Take a look at this very partial list and decide for yourself if it is normal.
The dead include the American editor of Forbes Russia, Paul Klebnikov, in 2004 and the brave Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who survived a poison attack only to be gunned down in 2006.
Yuri Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist specializing in corruption, died mysteriously days before planning to meet FBI investigators in the U.S. His colleagues are convinced he was poisoned.
Leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in 2015 right under the Kremlin’s walls as he strolled on a bridge with a friend. This perfectly illustrates Putin’s sense of impunity.
But as the list of poisonings grows, it is long past time to accept Putin as a normal leader. Poison may have been a favored tool of Russian despots past, including during Soviet times, but Putin presents himself as a global figure in our times.
Yet consider this: In 2004, Ukraine’s former pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, he believed by Russian agents. At the Davos World Economic Forum in 2005, Yushchenko told me he believed he could trace the trail of the killer to Moscow.
In 2006, Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, who had British citizenship, was poisoned in London by radioactive polonium-210, inserted into a cup of tea by Russian agents. A British public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death concluded that Putin probably approved his assassination. Of course, the Kremlin denied all, and promoted the alleged killer to membership in parliament.
And in 2018, Sergei Skripal, a double agent for the UK’s intelligence services, and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned in Salisbury, England, also with a Novichok nerve agent. The British government accused two Russian agents of the murder attempt, but the Russian foreign ministry called the allegations “insane.”
This is the Russian government whose leader’s behavior Trump has been defending for the past four years. In December 2015, when asked about political murders on Putin’s watch, Trump told ABC: “Nobody has proven that he’s killed anyone. … He’s always denied it.” When asked the same question on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, candidate Trump answered, “Well, we do a lot of killings, too.”
It seems nothing has changed. Trump is still in denial about Putin’s mainstreaming of political murder. Indeed, the president has demanded that the Russian leader be reinvited to G-7 meetings of the major industrialized democracies.
Meantime, Trump refuses to confront Putin on Russian bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan or Russian threats to U.S. troops in Syria.
Nor will the president stand up to Russia’s efforts to target our 2020 election with disinformation, including false claims that mail-in voting could lead to fraud, efforts the U.S. intelligence community has publicly warned about. Perhaps this is because Trump is making the false claims that Moscow is amplifying.
When the Kremlin used Novichok on British soil in 2018, Trump agreed to sanctions, pressed by London.
Now Merkel is demanding a collective NATO response to the Navalny poisoning, and the future of an uncompleted $11 billion Russian gas pipeline may even be on the line.
So far Trump has refused to drop his tacit support for a killer Kremlin that makes murder of political dissidents into a norm. Perhaps the U.S. president envies the ease with which Putin can get rid of opponents. Whatever Trump’s reasons, the Navalny case is testing him as well as Putin.
A refusal to take a clear, strong stand against Putin’s misdeeds would be a blatant reminder of Trump’s disinterest in democratic norms.