The Biden administration said Sunday it is weighing possible punishments on Russia amid reports of the deteriorating condition of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is in the third week of a hunger strike to protest his treatment by the government of President Vladimir Putin.
Allies of Mr. Navalny, one of Mr. Putin’s most effective critics and the target of a poisoning attempt last year as he campaigned against the Kremlin, are calling for major protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg Wednesday to highlight what they say are Mr. Navalny’s lack of adequate health care and the government’s repression of his movement. The protest would come on the same day as Mr. Putin’s planned State of the Nation address.
Mr. Navalny has been on a hunger strike in jail since the beginning of the month to protest what he says is the refusal of prison officials to address his ailments, which apparently are tied to his near-fatal poisoning by a Soviet-era nerve gas agent. Supporters say the 44-year-old Mr. Navalny faces kidney failure soon if he is not properly treated.
President Biden on Saturday called the dissident’s plight “totally unfair and totally inappropriate,” and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that Washington is monitoring the situation closely and prepared to act if Mr. Navalny dies.
“We have communicated to the Russian government that what happens to Mr. Navalny in their custody is their responsibility and they will be held accountable by the international community,” Mr. Sullivan said, while declining to “telegraph” what specific measures the U.S. and its allies might take. The U.S. and Russia last week traded sanctions and the expulsion of diplomats over the Biden administration’s conclusion that Mr. Putin’s government orchestrated the SolarWinds hacking of private and government computer networks and had also tried to interfere once against with the U.S. presidential election last year.
Russia has denied the charges and lodged its own protests over Mr. Biden’s agreeing to a characterization in a television interview last month that Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent who has ruled Russia since the turn of the century, was “a killer.”
The two sides last week appeared to be trying to put a cap on escalating tensions with the precisely calibrated, proportional sanctions, and Mr. Biden even raised the prospect of a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Putin in a third country this summer in a bid to put relations ona more stable course.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on CNN Sunday it was impossible to gauge the potential fallout from any new Navalny sanctions on the summit because the meeting has not even been agreed to yet by Moscow.
The governments of France and Germany also issued public protests Sunday over the treatment of Mr. Navalny, whose condition has reportedly been deteriorating rapidly. European Union foreign ministers are expected to discuss the Navalny case on Monday.
“Our patient can die any minute,” cardiologist Yaroslav Ashikhmin told Russian reporters over the weekend.
In an interview aired Sunday on the BBC, Russian Ambassador to Britain Andrei Kelin appeared to put some of the blame for the crisis on the prisoner himself.
“Of course he will not be allowed to die in prison,” Mr. Kelin said, “but I can say that Mr. Navalny behaves like a hooligan absolutely in trying to violate every rule that has been established.”
Mr. Navalny could see his 2½-year sentence for fraud reduced substantially if “he would behave normally,” Mr. Kelin said.
Mr. Navalny was jailed immediately after he returned from medical treatment in Germany. Officials say his German stay violated the terms of a suspended sentence he received for a fraud conviction in a case that Navalny says was politically motivated.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that a number of Mr. Navalny’s doctors traveled to the prison colony where he is being held about 60 miles outside of Moscow, but were denied entrance to visit their patient.
“It’s cruel and monstrous to deny access to a dying patient,” Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of a Navalny-backed doctors’ union, told reporters at the gates of the prison camp.