February 16, 2024 - 8:15pm

Russia has become the perfect proxy for the deep divisions in American politics, as the reported death of Aleksei Navalny in Russian custody demonstrates. 

Russian authorities announced that Navalny, who was serving multiple sentences in an arctic prison after criticising Vladimir Putin, died in prison Friday. The news evoked partisan fighting in the US over Donald Trump’s relationship with Putin, a congressional package that would fund the war in Ukraine, and the prosecution of Trump. 

Left-leaning pundits and Democratic members of Congress suggested Trump and the GOP were indirectly responsible for Navalny’s death, pointing to Trump’s positive comments on Putin and Trump-aligned politicians’ resistance to further Ukraine funding. 

“Putin murders Navalny the same week Donald Trump invites Russia to invade Europe and MAGA Mike Johnson blocks aid to Ukraine. This isn’t a coincidence, it’s the green light Putin has been given,” Democrat Rep. Eric Swalwell commented. Democrat Rep. Jasmine Crockett echoed similar sentiments.  

The neoconservative Right similarly responded to news of Navalny’s death with criticisms of Donald Trump and the MAGA Right, believing them to be soft on Putin. Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, for example, was quick to note that the former President “praises and defends” Putin. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton further called on Joe Biden to fulfil his pledge of “devastating” consequences for Putin. 

Meanwhile, the populist Right suggested Biden’s weakness had emboldened Putin and vented their concerns about political persecution in the US, particularly the prosecution of Trump. 

“As the world reflects on the murder of Alexei Navalny at the hands of Putin, it’s worth remembering that Democrats are actively doing Biden’s bidding as they also try to imprison his chief political opponent, Donald Trump, remove him from the ballot, and ensure he dies in prison,” said Republican former congressman Lee Zeldin. 

The populist Right’s contrarian streak and scepticism of America’s foreign policy agenda was embodied by Tucker Carlson’s recent trip to Russia, which yielded an interview with Vladimir Putin and widelymocked commentary praising Russian grocery stores and urban infrastructure. 

Glenn Greenwald, something of a spokesman for the populist Left, also argued that the US was hypocritical in its reaction to Navalny’s death, pointing to the Obama administration’s celebration of journalist Edward Snowden being detained in Russia and the muted American response to the death of Zelensky critic Gonzalo Lira in a Ukrainian prison last month. David Sacks, a Republican venture capitalist and critic of Biden’s foreign policy, made the same point about Lira’s recent death. 

Foreign policy is a visible wedge issue in US politics, splitting the GOP and dominating Congress’ legislative agenda. Whereas Russia once united the US through shared hostility and fear throughout the Cold War, views toward the nation now are now heavily divided.

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.