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Former U.S. Ambassador To Russia On The Arrest Of Russian Opposition Leader


Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent political opposition leader, is back in Russia. Last August, you may recall, he was poisoned with a lethal nerve agent. Navalny was airlifted to Germany for treatment. He nearly died, but he vowed to get better and, when he did, to return to Russia. Yesterday he made good on that promise and was immediately arrested for violating the terms of an earlier suspended prison sentence. He was quickly tried in front of a judge inside a room at a police station outside Moscow. Well, world leaders are condemning Navalny's detention. They are calling for his release. For more on how the events of these past couple of days have played globally, we are joined by Ambassador Michael McFaul. He served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.

Ambassador, welcome back.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So I was struck by current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeting that he's deeply troubled by Navalny's arrest and by incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan tweeting that the attack on Navalny is outrageous and calling for his immediate release, making this that rarest of things, I think - agreement between the outgoing and incoming administrations. What might this tell us about how this could backfire against Putin, possibly isolate him further on the world stage?

MCFAUL: Well, I noticed those two tweets, too. I also noticed two dozen tweets from Secretary Pompeo about China and just one about Navalny, and I was glad to see that Jake Sullivan did speak out. He's found his voice on Twitter already as the new national security adviser. I think there's a lot of consensus about what is happening internally inside Russia and the United States between Democrats, Republicans and our allies in Europe. And I think it's right to speak out about it. Remember; President Trump never did. He's got one day left, so maybe we're going to hear something tomorrow. But...

KELLY: Not on Twitter, it doesn't look like, but yeah.

MCFAUL: Not on Twitter, but - not a single word ever about human rights violations in Russia. So that's the good news. The harder news is, what do you do about it that you can affect things inside? I'm optimistic that the new team is thinking very hard about that issue - not just statements but actions. But, you know, it's hard. It is hard to bring about domestic change in other countries.

KELLY: Why do you think Navalny went back? He knew he would be arrested right away.

MCFAUL: I know Alexei Navalny. He had no choice. In his view, his job, his mission in life is to end what he considers a criminal regime in Russia. They tried to kill him, as you just reported. He then called out one of his killers, by the way, and got them to confess that they did. He went to get treatment, but he was not going to let Putin chase him out of his own country. Remember; Mr. Navalny is a very patriotic man, and he was not going to allow them to do that. He had to go back and, you know, to fight this regime.

KELLY: The Kremlin has denied poisoning Navalny. I know from having interviewed you in the past that you do not buy that. I do wonder now that the attention of the world is on Navalny, does that protect him in any way? Does it make it harder for those holding him to mistreat him and think, maybe nobody will notice?

MCFAUL: It does. When the world watches, it helps people like Navalny and other countries around the world. I think there's no doubt about that. It also means that it raises the stakes for other countries to do something about it, right? I mean, Putin's playing a game of chicken right now with the new Biden administration. In many ways, they are walking into their first major foreign policy crisis. And he's waiting to see, do they just put in a few sanctions and then move on to other things, or do they do something radically different?

KELLY: It will be fascinating to watch. And, of course, Russia, I'll just note briefly, has in past brushed off criticism, says Western leaders are just trying to distract from their own domestic woes. Do they have - in a few seconds, ambassador, do they have something of a point there?

MCFAUL: No. We got to get our democracy in order at home, but we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Two wrongs do not make a right.

KELLY: Michael McFaul - he is former U.S. ambassador to Russia and author of "From Cold War To Hot Peace."

Ambassador McFaul, good to speak with you.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.