U.S. President Joe Biden says if jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny were to die, it would be a “tragedy” that would damage Russia’s relationship with the United States and the rest of the world.
Biden was asked about the potential death of Navalny on June 14 during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels that covered several other topics ahead of his upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Earlier this month, in a U.S. television interview by NBC News, Putin was asked whether he was willing to "personally ensure that Aleksei Navalny will leave prison alive" after completing his 32-month prison sentence.
Putin was unable to do so, saying "such decisions in this country are not made by the president," and claiming that Navalny will not be treated "any worse than anybody else who happens to be in prison."
Biden on June 14 said: "Navalny's death would be another indication that Russia has little or no intention of abiding by basic fundamental human rights, it would be a tragedy, it would do nothing but hurt relations with the rest of the world, and me."
Navalny was the target of a poisoning attack last year that he and his supporters have said was ordered by Putin. The Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Kremlin have denied any role in the poisoning.
In April, Navalny went on a 24-day hunger strike that raised fears he could die, and at one point he described himself as looking like a "skeleton staggering around his cell.” He ended the hunger strike on April 23 and last week was transferred from a prison hospital back to his cell.
During the news conference Biden was asked about the specifics of the agenda of the June 16 summit with Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, but he declined to provide any or assess how he’ll measure the success of the summit.
He suggested he would be looking for areas of agreement with Putin, while also warning him against continued aggression toward the United States and its allies.
“I’m gonna make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses, and if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cybersecurity and other activities, then we will respond, we will respond in kind,” Biden said.
Biden described Putin as “bright,” “tough,” and a “worthy adversary.” But he indicated he would remain wary of any commitments coming out of their meeting, saying he would “verify first and then trust.”
Biden also said the NATO leaders he had spoken with about his meeting with Putin thanked him for planning it. Biden has faced questions about the possibility that it would only elevate Putin’s stature.
That sentiment also was brushed aside in the communique issued by the NATO leaders, which said Russia "continues to breach the values, principles, trust, and commitments outlined in agreed documents that underpin the NATO-Russia relationship."
Mentioning Russia more than 60 times, the lengthy document said there can be no return to “business as usual" until Russia “demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities.”
The statement also included language about updating Article 5 in relation to major cyberattacks, which have become a significant and growing concern after a number of intrusions of U.S. government and corporate networks by hackers who U.S. officials have said are based in Russia.
The communique also took China to task for “assertive behaviour” that challenges the rules-based international order. It noted that China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and is also cooperating militarily with Russia.
The leaders called on China “to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber, and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power.”
Biden began his trip to Europe -- his first since becoming president -- at the Group of Seven (G7) summit in England over the weekend. The two meetings with America's closest allies ahead of the summit with Putin was intentionally designed to show the Russian president that democracies of the world are once again aligned against Russian aggression.