Biden says Putin behind Navalny’s reported death

President urges Congress to OK Ukraine aid

President Joe Biden, shown speaking Friday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, pinned blame for the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(AP/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden, shown speaking Friday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, pinned blame for the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden said Friday that the apparent death of Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny brings new urgency to the need for Congress to approve tens of billions of dollars for Ukraine to stave off Moscow's invasion.

Speaking at the White House, Biden said that no matter the cause, he holds Russian President Vladimir Putin responsible for Navalny's death. He added, "I hope to God it helps" push U.S. lawmakers to send more aid to Ukraine.

Also Friday, Navalny's wife held attendees riveted at the Munich Security Conference where she had gone to present his case again before world leaders but instead suddenly found herself publicly mourning her husband and turning his death into a call for action against Putin's Russia.

Biden said "history is watching" lawmakers in the House, which hasn't moved to take up a Senate-passed bill that would send funds and armaments to Ukraine, whose troops U.S. officials say are running out of critical munitions on the battlefield.

"The failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will never be forgotten," Biden said. "And the clock is ticking. This has to happen. We have to help now."

Biden said the U.S. had not confirmed Navalny's death in a Russian prison above the Arctic Circle, but that he had no reason to doubt it, either.

The president sharply criticized House Republicans for letting the chamber enter a two-week recess without moving on the Ukraine funding.

"What are they thinking? My God," Biden said. "This is bizarre and it's just reinforcing all of the concern -- I won't say panic but real concern -- about the United States being a responsible ally."

Republican Speaker Mike Johnson earlier this week said the House won't be "rushed" to pass the aid, but on Friday he said Putin was "a vicious dictator and the world knows he is likely directly responsible for the sudden death of his most prominent political opponent."

"We must be clear that Putin will be met with united opposition," Johnson, R-La., said in a statement. "As Congress debates the best path forward to support Ukraine, the United States and our partners must be using every means available to cut off Putin's ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine and aggression against the Baltic states."

Johnson's plan for moving the aid is unclear. While the speaker has said he personally supports aiding Ukraine, he leads a far-right majority that is solidly aligned with former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination who opposes the legislation. Republicans have argued that Congress needs to first pass legislation to stem migration at the border, but Johnson and GOP House lawmakers immediately rejected a bipartisan Senate compromise on the border.

In a statement Friday, Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries called for an up or down vote on the Senate-passed bill.

"We must never allow Vladimir Putin and Russia to win," Jeffries said. "This is not a moment for platitudes and empty promises. It is a time to choose."

The Senate passed the Ukraine package, which also includes money for Israel and Taiwan, on a 70-29 vote Tuesday. Republicans were deeply divided on the bill, with 22 voting for it and 26 voting against. Some of the strongest GOP opponents argued that Ukraine can't win the war and that there should be a settlement with Russia, an argument Putin has made.

On Friday, Republicans renewed their criticism of Putin -- but some suggested it was up to Biden to respond.

"Alexei Navalny died as he lived: a champion of the Russian people and a brave voice of dissent in Vladimir Putin's Russia," posted Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who voted against the aid. "President Biden pledged 'devastating' consequences should Navalny die in prison; now he must follow through. America can't afford another erased red line."

Lawmakers who have pushed for the Ukraine legislation blamed the Republicans who have sided with Trump as he has urged its defeat.

"The speaker's loyalty to Trump's Putin is foolish & dangerous," posted Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, on X, formerly known as Twitter.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who voted for the package, said Navalny laid down his life fighting for a country he loved and that "Putin is a murderous, paranoid dictator."

"History will not be kind to those in America who make apologies for Putin and praise Russian autocracy," Tillis posted. "Nor will history be kind to America's leaders who stay silent because they fear backlash from online pundits."

WORDS FROM A WIDOW

Friday's news also changed the tone of the Munich Security Conference, where Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, had arrived to press conference-goers to remember the activist and her troubled nation. Instead, she was faced with the sudden news of his death.

By her own admission, her first thought was to fly away, to join her grown children to mourn in private a man who had already survived a horrific poisoning and years behind bars. But before she did, she decided she had to speak out. Because he would have wanted her to.

Navalnaya stunned the presidents, prime ministers, diplomats and generals at the Munich Security Conference when she strode into the hall Friday afternoon, took the stage and delivered an unflinching condemnation of Putin, vowing that he and his circle would be brought to justice. Her dramatic appearance electrified a conference already consumed with the threat posed by a revanchist Russia.

"I don't know whether to believe the news or not, the awful news that we receive only from government sources in Russia," she told the high-powered audience, which hung on her every word. "We cannot believe Putin and Putin's government. They're always lying.

"But if this is true," she went on, speaking in Russian, "I want Putin and everyone around him, Putin's friends, his government to know that they will bear responsibility for what they have done to our country, to my family and to my husband. And this day will come very soon.

"And I want to call on the world community," she continued, "everyone in this room and people around the world to come together to defeat this evil, defeat this horrible regime that is now in Russia."

She spoke for just two minutes, but it captivated the audience, which included Vice President Kamala Harris sitting in the front row and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the balcony. The crowd rose to its feet to give her a standing ovation, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, reached out as Navalnaya left the stage to kiss her as a couple of senators looked on.

"On what must be the worst day of her life, she was so strong, and a reminder that Russians who believe in freedom will continue to fight for as long as it takes to hold Putin accountable for his barbaric crimes," Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia, said of Navalnaya after her speech.

Over the years, many Russians hoped that Navalnaya might step in to become an alternative leading figure in the opposition. While fiercely outspoken in defending her husband and criticizing the many forms of oppression that he faced, however, she has never ventured directly into opposition politics -- and rarely took to a podium as she did in Munich.

During Navalny's time in Germany, where he was treated after his poisoning in 2020, she remained private, posting only occasional photos of the two of them together during his treatment and recovery, but never speaking publicly.

She became familiar to tens of millions around the world last year, however, when she appeared at the Academy Awards ceremony, where the documentary "Navalny" won an Oscar.

Navalny had continued to post on social media from prison by passing messages to his visiting lawyers. His most recent Instagram post was Wednesday -- Valentine's Day -- and it was a message to his wife: "We may be separated by blue blizzards and thousands of kilometers, he wrote, "but I feel that you are near me every second, and I keep loving you even more."

Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller and Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press and by Peter Baker of The New York Times.

  photo  President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in Washington, enroute to East Palestine, Ohio. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 

  photo  People gather to lay flowers Friday, paying their last respects to Alexei Navalny at the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russian authorities say Navalny, the fiercest foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died in prison. More photos at arkansasonline.com/217navalny/. (AP/Dmitri Lovetsky)
 
 
  photo  Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, reacts as she speaks during the Munich Security Conference, in Munich, Germany, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia’s prison agency said. He was 47. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Pool Photo via AP)
 
 


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