Bret Stephens: Congress should pass a Navalny Act

(Andrei Fateyev | Alexei Navalny's team via AP) In this August 2020, photo, provided by Alexei Navalny's team, Ksenia Fadeyeva poses for a photo with Alexei Navalny in Tomsk, Russia. Fadeyeva runs the regional headquarters in the Siberian city and is running for the Tomsk city council. Navalny is in a coma in a Berlin hospital after suffering what German authorities say was a poisoning with a chemical nerve agent while traveling in Siberia on Aug. 20. Fadeyeva says that won’t stop the political campaigns that Navalny has launched across Russia to end the dominance of the Kremlin’s United Russia party.

In 2012, in the face of quiet resistance from the Obama administration, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, named for a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was left to die in a Moscow prison in 2009 for blowing the whistle on a $230 million scam perpetrated by government officials.

In 2020, in the face of what would be likely resistance from the Trump administration, Congress has a chance to do something useful by passing a Navalny Act, named for the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who now lies in a coma in a German hospital after being poisoned in Russia last month with the military grade nerve agent Novichok.

To be clear, a “Navalny Act” doesn’t yet exist beyond this column. But it shouldn’t be hard to sketch the essentials of what ought to be necessary legislation.

What did the Magnitsky Act do? In its original form (it has since been expanded in the United States and adopted by other countries) it imposed travel bans and asset freezes on a small number of people — relatively low-level officials — implicated in the swindle that Magnitsky uncovered, and in the cover-up that led to his grisly death.

Yet the act had a neuralgic effect on the Russian government, because it hit where it hurt. As Julia Ioffe noted in The Atlantic, “What made Russian officialdom so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was some kind of roadblock to getting stolen money to safety” — safety often meaning a condo in Miami, a townhouse in Belgravia or a Channel Island bank account. By threatening to unmask some of the faceless apparatchiks whose goal in life is to loot Russia so they may leave it, the Magnitsky Act threatened the incentive structure of the regime itself. Why work for a pirate if you don’t get to share in the booty?

A Navalny Act would take the Magnitsky Act several steps further. When I proposed the idea to Bill Browder, the U.S.-born investor who once employed Magnitsky and who’s been the prime mover of Magnitsky legislation in the United States and elsewhere, he jumped at the possibilities.

“There needs to be a list compiled of government officials who were complicit in the poisoning or cover-up of poisoning,” he told me. “And the list should be long. And the list should include people with command responsibility. And the sanctions should be simultaneously put in place by the United States, the U.K., Canada, the EU and Australia.”

What Browder has in mind is an extension of the Magnitsky concept — maintaining the principle of holding individuals to account by targeting their assets and their rights to travel, only this time for a political crime. The same principle could be extended beyond the Navalny poisoning to establish a standing bipartisan commission to investigate other Putin-era political crimes: the murders of Boris Nemtsov, Natalya Estemirova, Anna Politkovskaya and Sergei Yushenkov; the poisonings of Sergei Skripal, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Viktor Yushchenko. A similar inquiry in Britain, led by the retired High Court judge Robert Owen, presented compelling evidence that the 2006 polonium murder of dissident Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in London was “probably approved” at the highest level in the Kremlin.

Moral accountability is step one. Step two is factual accountability.

Among the reasons that Navalny was so hated by the Kremlin was his tireless campaign to expose secret assets (allegedly including a pair of yachts and a vineyard in Italy) belonging to top leaders like former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. The Senate already has a bill — Lindsey Graham’s Defending American Security From Kremlin Aggression Act, or DASKA — that would require the intelligence community to publicize what it knows about Vladimir Putin’s personal wealth.

Retaliating for Russia’s disinformation campaign in the West with a Western information campaign for Russia seems like an ideally symmetrical response, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not brought DASKA up for a vote. Draw your own conclusions.

The third step is economic accountability.

Navalny may be fighting for his life in Germany. But, thanks to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dogged support for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, Germany has become Putin’s greatest enabler in Europe.

Merkel’s position that the European Union should keep separate economic and political accounts with Russia was never justifiable. Now it’s outrageous: In the face of yet another Russian chemical-weapons attack against a human being, Merkel is proposing to provide a financial lifeline to the likely culprit while increasing Europe’s strategic vulnerability to a criminal and aggressive regime.

While it will undoubtedly enrage many in Germany, a properly written Navalny Act would formalize sanctions against companies from any country that do business with Nord Stream, prohibiting them from doing business in the United States — and barring their corporate officers, including Gerhard Schröder, chairman of the Russian energy company Rosneft and a former German chancellor, from traveling to the United States.

For now, Donald Trump says there is no proof who poisoned Navalny, while he boasts about trying to get along with Russia. If ever one needed another reminder of why he’s unfit to be president, this is it. A Navalny Act will have to await a Biden administration and a Democratic Senate — for which it should be the first order of foreign-policy business.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.