Biden Knows Putin Killed Alexei Navalny

The President of the United States only knows what his intelligence community tells him. After the January attack on a U.S. military facility in Jordan, American intelligence assessed that Iran does not fully control its proxy groups and that it is not commanding the attacks. The Pentagon, though, said “we know Iran is behind it,” and Joe Biden said, “I do hold them responsible.”

In October 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review stated “Iran does not today possess a nuclear weapon and we currently believe it is not pursuing one.” On February 25, 2023, CIA Director William Burns said that “[t]o the best of our knowledge, we don’t believe that the supreme leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program.” Yet, Biden says “they’ll have a nuclear weapon,” and the Biden administration “is ready to use military means as a last resort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

On February 16, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny died in prison from still unknown causes. When asked if Navalny had been assassinated, Biden had to admit, “The answer is, we don’t know exactly what happened.” But that did not stop him from saying in a televised statement, “Make no mistake: Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death.”

Biden’s verdict goes beyond what his intelligence has told him.

Alexei Navalny is being eulogized as another Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. While it is fitting that he should receive accolades for his brilliant anti-corruption campaign, it is also fitting that history not be erased. Navalny was courageous, but he was no Martin Luther King Jr.

Navalny began his political career as a member of the social liberal Yabloko Party. But, in 2007, they expelled him for “causing political damage to the party; in particular, for nationalist activities.” Those “nationalist activities” included posting a video that called immigrants “cockroaches” who were infesting Russia and advocated that the solution was shooting them. Though he would soften his message later in his career, that is not language Martin Luther King would have used, or a policy he would have advocated, at any point in his activism. Navalny also attacked migration from Central Asia and famously adopted the slogan, “stop feeding the Caucuses.”

Though Biden has channeled Navalny’s death to remind “the world” of “Putin’s brutality” and to persuade the U.S. House of Representatives to approve continued military aid for Ukraine to fight against Russia, it is fitting to remember that it was Navalny’s policy that Crimea not be returned to Ukraine. He suggested the possibility of a referendum to determine the will of Crimeans, but, given consistent past polling, the result would not be in doubt. It is also fitting to remember that Navalny supported Russia’s military involvement in Georgia in 2008 and advocated for protecting ethnic Russians abroad.

Navalny had consistently been against Putin’s corruption, but he had not consistently been against Putin’s foreign policy. And he was often less pluralistic and more nationalistic.

Though Navalny has been adopted and promoted as the poster face of Russian opposition in the West, he had a tougher time taking root in the soil of Russia. And his popular support at the time of his death had long passed its apex.

Navalny’s popular support may have crested in the 2013 Moscow mayoral election when he won 27.4% of the vote. But Moscow does not represent all of Russia: Putin alternatives sometimes fair better there.

Navalny’s position was consistently anti-corruption, but beyond that, it was, at times, hard to pin down. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the past called Navalny “a voice of millions and millions of Russians.” But by the 2018 elections, “barely a thousand turned up in Moscow,” University of Kent Russia scholar Richard Sakwa reports, “in response to his call for a ‘voters’ strike.” Sakwa says, “Despite his prominence and high name recognition, his polling support remained in the single digits.” In 2021, only 19% of Russians approved of Navalny’s activities, and less than 5% thought him trustworthy. “Navalny,” Putin biographer Philip Short says, “remained more a gadfly than a national leader.”

Navalny was barred from running in the 2018 national elections, but the late Russia scholar Stephen Cohen said that “preelection polls showed him with about 2 percent popular support.” Social liberal candidates garnered a total of less than 3% of the vote in that election. By January 2024, a month before his death, Navalny’s approval rating had sunk to lower than 1%, according to Denis Volkov, director of the independent Russian polling Levada Center.

That Navalny could no longer realistically be seen as a threat to Putin is one of the challenges to the quickly arrived at conclusion that Putin ordered the killing of Navalny. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, despite Biden’s certain claim to knowledge.

The timing of Navalny’s death and the suspicion it casts on Putin is very badly timed for the Russian president. Putin is coming into an election with two things going very well for him. Navalny’s death stole the headlines from the fall of the Donbas town of Avdiivka. The Russian-Ukrainian war is going very well for Russia. Though portrayed in the Western media as a symbolic victory, the fall of Avdiivka is a major strategic victory and, perhaps, even a crucial turning point in the war.

And politically, Putin’s already high pre-election approval ratings have soared even higher. In December 2023, they were over 80%. One independent poll, taken at the end of December, pegged the number at 83%. The suspicion that Navalny’s death casts over his character is the last thing Putin needs at a time when things are going so well. That raises the important question of motive.

The quick judgment against Putin is presumably based on two sets of precedence. The first is that, if Navalny was murdered, it is the second attempt on his life.

In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent in the Novichok family. Suspicion fell on Russia’s intelligence community. But the question of whether the poisoning was ordered by Putin remained. Even The New York Times, reporting after Navalny’s death on “the near-fatal poisoning with a nerve agent in 2020” would only go so far as to say that it was “widely believed to be perpetrated by Russian agents.” Philip Short, who suspects there is “reason to think that Putin personally approved” the failed attempt—though, it seems, on very indirect, circumstantial evidence—allows that “even among Russians opposed to the regime, many thought [it] more likely” that “a decision had been taken by” representatives of the security and intelligence community “who assumed that he would be only too glad to see his long-time adversary removed.” The details and verdict in the first attempt remain a murky mystery.

The second precedent is the West’s case that there is a long list of political opponents who were taken care of by being killed by Putin. The problem is that, as Stephen Cohen wrote, “There is no actual evidence… to support” their case.

Short says that, though he may have “allowed a climate to develop” in which powerful people could order killings, “contrary to widespread belief in the West,” Putin “did not” authorize the killings. Short argues that in a list of ten suspicious deaths of Putin critics compiled by The Washington Post in 2017, “only the death of Alexandr Litvinenko can be laid firmly at Putin’s door. All the others appear to have been killed for reasons unconnected with the Kremlin.”

Russia scholars like Cohen and Sakwa don’t even allow Litvinenko to be laid at Putin’s door uncontested. Cohen said “there is still no conclusive proof.” “Not a shred of actual proof,” he said, “points to Putin.” Sakwa, too, has pointed to inconsistencies and counterevidence, including Litvinenko initially accusing someone other than Putin.

There is still very little known about the death of Alexei Navalny. But there is a degree of historical dishonesty in invoking his death in defense of the ongoing funding of the war in Ukraine. And there is a danger to the Biden administration continuing a trend of arriving at judgements in the absence of intelligence by convicting Putin with a certainty not yet warranted by their intelligence.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at