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Le Monde
Le Monde
17 Feb 2024

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Wherever he was, at liberty or in prison, hospitalized or in good health, at home or abroad, Alexei Navalny's existence had become unbearable for Vladimir Putin. The death of Russia's most famous opposition figure at the age of 47 in an Arctic prison, announced on Friday, February 16 by the prison administration, reveals the Kremlin's determination to suppress all forms of opposition, even in their most constrained state.

Read Le Monde's obituary Subscribers only Alexei Navalny, a life of resistance and sacrifice

There should be no illusions about the investigation that will be carried out into the reasons behind Navalny's death, as he suddenly "fell ill" at the end of a walk, according to prison officials. The fact that the news was leaked to the Russian media, without his family or lawyers being informed, reflects the message his death is intended to convey, including to Western leaders gathered at the same time in Munich to discuss defense and security. That is that Putin is the master of his own house and intends to remain so, whatever the icons adopted by his detractors.

Western leaders made no mistake and directly attributed the responsibility for Navalny's death to Putin. Indeed, it was the repressive regime built up over almost a quarter of a century by the former KGB officer-turned-nearly perpetual president that put an end to Navalny's challenge to Russia's authoritarian system. By voluntarily returning to his homeland on January 17, 2021, after miraculously surviving the poisoning intended to kill him, Navalny had committed the supreme act of opposition, an act of insane courage. He refused the banishment of exile and continued to exist politically: even behind bars, even as his convictions piled up perpetually lengthening his sentence, and even in the Arctic prison where he had been relegated 2,000 kilometers away from Moscow.

Cynicism and expansionism

But Putin knows only one way of dealing with those who oppose him, whether they be champions of democracy like Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov and Navalny, or mobsters like Wagner militia leader Yevgeny Prigozhin: death. The moral abyss into which Putin is plunging Russia is seen on a much larger scale in Ukraine, the country where he is also sowing death and which he plunged into war two years ago, after beginning his aggression against his neighbor 10 years ago.

Navalny's martyrdom and that of his still-imprisoned friends, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, who also returned voluntarily and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, recalls the democratic struggle of Soviet-era dissidents. At the time, they received the support of Western countries. Challenged once again today, these countries must regain the path of firmness in the face of the Russian regime's cynicism and expansionism.

In 2021, when Navalny was once again imprisoned, US President Joe Biden warned Moscow that his death in custody would have "devastating" consequences. Now, here we are. The circumstances of the death of this admirably obstinate opponent of Putin's system, at a time when Moscow is settling into a long-term war in Ukraine and reinforcing its aggression towards its European neighbors, force Western leaders to ask themselves in all lucidity how they are managing a Russia that is, increasingly, openly hostile and provocative. Failure to do so would be truly devastating.

Le Monde

Translation of an original article published in French on; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.