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Biden Administration Reviews Its Overall Approach To Russia

NOEL KING, HOST:

U.S. officials expressed outrage when a Russian court ordered opposition leader Alexei Navalny to be sent to prison for more than two years. There's a debate, though, about what the U.S. should or even can do. The Biden administration is reviewing its approach to Russia. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At his first daily briefing at the State Department, spokesperson Ned Price made clear that he and his staff want to be on their toes, not on their heels. So they were quick with a statement calling on Russia to free Alexei Navalny.

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NED PRICE: We are going to look very carefully at the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia - what has happened with Mr. Navalny specifically, what has happened with the mass detentions of those who have bravely taken to the streets in the aftermath of Mr. Navalny's arrest.

KELEMEN: Navalny supporters have sent the Biden administration a list of Russian officials that they think should face sanctions. The Atlantic Council's Dan Fried, who used to work on sanctions policy at the State Department, says that's one place to begin.

DANIEL FRIED: The fastest way to respond is to go after individuals who are in Putin's corrupt circle or their children who have gotten rich because they are children of members of Putin's corrupt inner circle. And that would be appropriate given that Navalny himself is an anti-corruption activist.

KELEMEN: Fried says he thinks the Biden administration is sending the right signals so far. President Biden agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend a key arms control agreement but made clear that the U.S. is looking into Russia's troubling behavior elsewhere. That includes a cyberattack that experts believe was an espionage operation and reports that the Russians put bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The Navalny case poses yet another early test, says Fried.

FRIED: They will want, quite rightly, to take a step back and think about Russia policy, and they're right to do so. But life doesn't let you do things in a proper order.

KELEMEN: Alexei Navalny was medevaced to Germany last year after he was poisoned with a nerve agent. He was immediately arrested when he returned to Russia on an old case that the European Court of Justice had described as unlawful and arbitrary. Germany's foreign minister called his sentencing a bitter blow to the rule of law in Russia. The U.S. is likely to work together with Germany and other partners in Europe on more targeted sanctions.

ANGELA STENT: I could see some of that happening. That's probably not going to do very much to free Navalny from jail.

KELEMEN: Georgetown University's Angela Stent says the U.S. has a careful balancing act in Russia.

STENT: We're very limited in what we can do to affect what happens inside Russia. You know, we've had 30 years of democracy promotion, and what we have is an increasingly authoritarian Russia.

KELEMEN: Vladimir Putin has been in power since Bill Clinton was president of the United States. But Stent says his crackdown on Navalny may be a sign of weakness.

STENT: These are not the acts of a really self-confident leader.

KELEMEN: Former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Dan Fried agrees, saying Putin's early years were marked with stability and growth.

FRIED: But he's been running out of steam and ideas, and his government is more and more just a kleptocratic scheme to keep them all rich. And Navalny has exposed that with his fabulous documentary about Putin's palace.

KELEMEN: More than 100 million people have watched Navalny's YouTube video. Fried wants the U.S. to pick up on that and take early steps together with its friends in Europe to impose some costs on corrupt Russian officials.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.