As Alexei Navalny lies in a medically induced coma in a Berlin hospital, battling for his life, the United States, Germany, and its other allies are debating how to respond to Russia's latest outrage – an attack on the country's leading dissident with a banned nerve agent.
This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that tests at a military laboratory had "identified unequivocally" that the 44-year-old Navalny had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent Novichok and demanded that Russia account for what she called his "attempted murder."
But on Friday, President Donald Trump refused to blame Russia or its leader Vladimir Putin for the attack. Though he called the poisoning "tragic," "terrible," and said "it shouldn't have happened but I will take a look," he said he had seen no evidence that Moscow was responsible.
China, he asserted, was a greater threat than Russia. And in a decidedly muddled message, the president added that while no president has been as tough on Russia as he has been, "I do get along with President Putin."
His refusal to blame Russia for what Germany and NATO have called a reprehensible crime raises the obvious question: Why the persistent defense of, and deference towards, an unrepentant autocrat?
Although Russia claims incredibly to have been shocked, shocked by the Navalny's illness and denies any involvement, the use of Novichok to poison a perceived foe "is exactly the same as leaving an autograph at the crime scene," the Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial earlier this week. Only government actors have access to the agent that eight to ten times more lethal than its chemical cousin, VX.
Indeed. Russia and the Soviet Union before it have a long history of killing perceived traitors, foes, and now critics, with and without chemical agents.
In 1978, Georgi Markov died in London after being stabbed in the back of his leg with a ricin-tipped umbrella.
Ivan Kivelidi, a Russian banker, died of cadmium poisoning that was spread on his office telephone in 1995.
In 2008, a Russian human rights lawyer died of mercury that was found in her car.
Poison was slipped into the tea of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya on a flight to the Caucasus. She survived, but in 2006 she was shot and killed in Moscow.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB operative turned dissident, died after drinking tea that was laced with a radioactive substance, also in 2006.
Five years ago, Boris Nemtsov, another Russian opposition leader, was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin.
Last year, Germany accused a Russian operative of carrying out the state-sponsored contract killing of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen insurgent commander who had sought asylum in Germany.
In 2018 Moscow used a military-grade agent developed in the Soviet Union's waning years to both kill quickly and escape detection to poison former KGB spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in England.
Miraculously, the Skripals survived, but one of three British citizens who came in contact with the victims or the discarded Novichok vial subsequently died. An investigation by Buzzfeed in 2018 found that Russia was suspected of having organized the killings of at least 14 people in Great Britain alone in the last two decades.
After the attack on the Skripals, Britain and the U.S. expelled large numbers of Russian diplomats and imposed some financial sanctions. But the measures have not been inflicted sufficient pain to stop the Kremlin from staging increasingly brazen attacks on its critics at home and abroad.
The poisoning of Navalny with Novichok, (which means "newcomers" in Russian) may not be the end of this ugly affair either. Though U.S. intelligence believes that Putin authorizes such attacks as a warning to Russians not to cross him, Navalny's poisoning appears to have temporarily backfired politically. Russian polls and news media show that support for him has risen dramatically as he battles for life.
One Russian expert would not rule out the possibility that the Kremlin will try again to administer more poison, not to kill him, which would make him a martyr to many Russians, but to ensure that he is unable to recover sufficiently to lead an opposition movement that could unseat Putin.
In other words, Navalny may not even be safe under supposedly tight security in his medically-induced coma in Charite Hospital in Berlin.
To prevent such brazen assaults, the U.S. and its European allies must act now, however belatedly.
As the Wall Street Journal has urged, Washington could invoke the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act or the Magnitsky Act to impose financial sanctions on those responsible, or as others have urged, on a dozen Russian oligarchs most closely linked to Putin – a major source of his money-laundering and cash.
The U.S. and its allies can and should also expel more Russian "diplomats" suspected of being intelligence operatives, just as they did after the Skripal poisoning.
The Trump administration should lean harder on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would make Germany even more dependent on Russian energy. And Trump has got to stop trying to find ways to bring Vladimir Putin back into the G-7 club, pretending that he is anyone's garden variety tough ruler.
Of course, the U.S. should continue to pursue talks on areas of mutual concern – nuclear and biological arms control, stopping Iran's aggression, and surveillance and military activities in space. But treating Putin as a preferred source of information over the U.S. intelligence community and declining to condemn in telephone chats with him the Kremlin's bounty on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and continued Russian meddling in U.S. elections only endangers U.S. national security by encouraging Putin's growing recklessness.
Trump is from Queens. He knows what to say to deliver a message that Putin will understand.