by Garry Kasparov
Since the start of the year, much of the world’s attention was focused on two trials on opposite sides of the world. In one, a brave truth-teller was persecuted by a vengeful administration after stirring up his patriotic followers in protest against tyranny. In the other, Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate.
It’s hard to imagine any similarities between Trump’s second impeachment trial and that of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, but there were a few. For example, in both trials, the outcome was known well in advance.
Trump’s legal team was cobbled together from the few people left on Earth whose reputations couldn’t be tarnished by associating with him. They barely bothered to make a case for the defense. They knew that even if Trump made a full confession to all charges of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, there wouldn’t be 17 Republicans willing to risk their political futures by doing the right thing. It’s the Trump party and has been for some time, and there is no place in it for the truth or the rule of law.
Several of the handful of GOP dissenters, although not including the only one who also voted to convict Trump the first time, Utah’s Mitt Romney, were quickly sanctioned by their state parties for daring to vote their consciences.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Alexei Navalny was quickly convicted for violating his probation. Having been sentenced on spurious charges of embezzlement several years ago, Navalny couldn’t make his required probation visit because he was in a coma after being poisoned by Vladimir Putin’s assassination squad last August. His real crime was failing to die as arranged, as well as cleverly exposing one of his assassins.
There is no independent judiciary in Putin’s Russia, much as the parliament has become a purely decorative branch during Putin’s 20 years in power. This is far from the case in the United States, but when the jury is compromised as in the Senate trial, there can be little expectation of justice. In both trials, the result demonstrated dysfunction and injustice at the highest level, with serious implications for each country going forward.
The differences between these dueling courtroom dramas were more obvious. Trump was acquitted for political reasons despite overwhelming evidence against him. Navalny was convicted for political reasons despite a complete lack of evidence of wrongdoing.
Trump fled Washington for Florida and saved his attacks on Sen. Mitch McConnell until after the trial was over. Navalny returned to Russia from Germany, where he was recovering from the Putin regime’s attempt to assassinate him. He knew he would be arrested immediately by the same people who failed to kill him last year, but he refused to stay away or to cease his criticism of Putin. Trump acted like a coward even when he had nothing to lose. Navalny showed courage when he had everything to lose.
Both inevitable verdicts indicated a business-as-usual trajectory in the United States and Russia. Many Republican officials still refuse to admit that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, as clear a litmus test as could exist for supporting country over party and personal interests.
Trump will go to his grave insisting that he won, that he was the victim of election fraud so vast and insidious that no evidence of it has ever been found. This would be nothing more than the ravings of a broken mind, akin to believing he’s Jesus or Napoleon, if so many others weren’t invested in propagating the delusion. That makes it dangerous, as demonstrated on Jan. 6, and an ongoing threat to the safety and integrity of American democratic processes.
Democracy cannot function if elections are not credible. This is as Trump intended when he attacked the 2016 election, spreading the myth of millions of “illegal votes” for Hillary Clinton. You only make such accusations when you are preparing to ignore the results if necessary. Trump won in 2016, but he was clearly preparing the ground for refusing to accept the outcome of 2020. Unfortunately, he found so many co-conspirators among Republican officials like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who are happy to assault the very electoral system that put them in office if they think it helps them attract Trump supporters.
There hasn’t been any change possible in Russian politics internally for a long time. It’s a one-man dictatorship, the kind Trump could only envy, and clearly did. Putin has had 20 years to build up his police state, an internal army funded by trade deals and energy exports with the free and unfree world alike.
Nevertheless, the recent protests supporting Navalny make Putin nervous, as evinced by the massive and violent police crackdown on peaceful marchers and activists. Putin isn’t worried that millions of Russians are finally going to drag him out of the Kremlin. He’s worried that his oligarch cronies and their business partners in the West might decide he’s become as toxic as the nerve gas he used to poison Navalny. If Putin’s lawlessness becomes a real threat to their money, assets, and the comfortable lives they and their families live in Europe and America, his support could evaporate very quickly.
Putin knows this very well, so his first move after arresting Navalny was to appear at the Davos World Economic Forum. He rushed to flex his connections and credentials, to demonstrate that the free world was still happy to do business with him even while they demanded Navalny’s immediate release.
This is the pathetic double-standard that Putin is so good at exploiting. He only cares about money, not any Russian national interests or diplomacy. When the European Union’s envoy came to Moscow, Putin sent him packing and kicked out a few EU diplomats for good measure, just to leave no doubt how little he thinks of their letters of condemnation.
President Biden and his administration have done a fair job of saying the right things, even addressing Putin directly, instead of the usual worthless diplo-babble about the Russian government. But unless they follow through with action, Putin will call the bluff and assume Biden is as much a paper tiger on his abuses and aggression as the Obama administration was.
On Friday, Biden told the Munich Security Conference that “America is back,” and would invest in the multilateral relationships Trump discarded for his “America First.” But being better than Trump is a very low bar, especially regarding Putin, and Biden is on the clock to go beyond that and establish his own strong national security and foreign policy agenda that put’s America at the forefront of defending human rights and the international rule of law.
Navalny’s group published a letter explaining what they think should be done: strong individual sanctions against Putin’s most powerful enablers and their families. It’s what many of us in the opposition have been calling for for years, instead of the piecemeal and limited sanctions Putin’s gang is content to deal with as a cost of doing very profitable business.
A good sign came on Friday, when Ukraine announced sanctions on powerful oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s point man in Ukraine. This came after President Zelensky recently banned three pro-Russia propaganda channels. Coming so soon after Biden’s inauguration, I have little doubt that the latest phone calls to Zelensky from the Oval Office were not about Hunter Biden, but from Joe Biden hunting for ways to loosen Russia’s grip on Ukraine.