This editorial has been updated to reflect breaking news.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has always made one thing abundantly clear: The anti-corruption movement he began is bigger than any one man.
The thousands of protestors who gathered near the Kremlin on Wednesday, the day Vladimir Putin made his annual address to Parliament, were a demonstration of the power of that idea — even as Navalny lies gravely ill in a prison hospital. They were also a test of the lengths to which Putin will go to destroy both the man and the idea.
The world is watching — with more than 300 protestors already reported as detained by Russian authorities.
The question is whether the new Biden administration means what it said just last week in announcing both new sanctions against Russia and its policy going forward to impose further sanctions should Russia “violate well-established principles of international law.” On Wednesday, Putin seemed to be elliptically responding to the West’s tough talk when he delivered a rebuke to anyone threatening Russia’s security, warning that those who did would “regret their deeds.”
Navalny was poisoned with a Cold War-era nerve agent while in Siberia last August — an attack traced to Russian state actors. Under international pressure, he was airlifted to Germany, where he was treated and recovered. He returned to Russia in January, where he was immediately arrested for failure to report to authorities on previous charges — charges widely believed to be trumped up in order to silence him and serve as a warning to like-minded dissidents.
To protest his lack of access to medical care for ongoing back pain and numbness in his leg and hands (the latter believed a result of his earlier poisoning), Navalny embarked on a hunger strike on March 30. He has lost well over 30 pounds and his already precarious health has further deteriorated.
Again under growing international pressure, he was finally moved Monday to a prison hospital, 60 miles from the prison colony he was originally sentenced to. His new jailers report he is being given “vitamin therapy.”
As Navalny’s condition was rapidly deteriorating, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan offered a tepid response.
“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,” Sullivan said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Without getting more specific, Sullivan said, “We are looking at a variety of different costs that we would impose,” adding, “We have communicated that there will be consequences if Mr. Navalny dies.”
That ought to have Putin shaking in his boots.
The point, of course, is to prevent Navalny’s death at the hands of a world leader who has already attempted to kill him once. And that’s well and good as a diplomatic threat.
But even more ominous is the crackdown on anti-corruption protestors, an echo of previous demonstrations in January and February that resulted in the detention of thousands of protesters. Putin’s prosecutors have threatened to have Navalny’s organization added to that nation’s list of extremist and terrorist groups. That could mean prison sentences for its other leaders.
It will take more than White House finger-wagging to save Navalny and his movement from being crushed under the heels of Putin’s oppression.
The first round of Biden’s sanctions, in March — a delayed response to Navalny’s poisoning — were little more than symbolic. They fell on seven government officials, including the head of the Federal Security Service and two entities already under sanction.
In Russia, of course, the truly powerful aren’t always obvious, as a letter sent on Navalny’s behalf by the leader of his organization noted.
“Existing sanctions don’t reach enough of the right people,” the letter said. “The West must sanction the decision makers who have made it national policy to rig elections, steal from the budget, and poison.” It also conveniently provided a list of 35 officials, oligarchs, and Putin cronies.
That’s not a bad place to start.
Alexei Navalny has now risked his life at least twice to call attention to the tyranny and corruption that is a fact of everyday Russian life. He has given US officials a road map to playing a meaningful role in rooting out some of that corruption. Taking it may save his life and the life of the movement he has begun.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.