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Aide To Russian Opposition Leader Says U.S. Must Use Leverage Against Putin

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On his way to the summit, President Biden expressed concern about a Russian opposition leader. Alexei Navalny is back in prison. He returned there after a hunger strike and hospitalization. Biden said if Navalny should die in prison, it would be, quote, "another indication" that Russia does not abide by human rights. NPR's Noel King spoke with Navalny's chief of staff, Leonid Volkov.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: How is his health today?

LEONID VOLKOV: The only good news that we have is that there are no bad news. So he has recovered after the hunger strike in a prison hospital. And on his birthday, June 4, he has been transferred back to the penal colony, where the strike started. So far, his health condition is stable.

KING: Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, did an interview with NBC News this week, and the interviewer, Keir Simmons, asked basically is Navalny going to survive in prison? Vladimir Putin answered through an interpreter. And here's that exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEIR SIMMONS: Will you commit that you will personally ensure that Alexei Navalny will leave prison alive?

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) I proceed from the premise that the person that you have mentioned, the same kind of measures will apply, not in any way worse than to anybody else who happens to be in prison.

KING: OK, so notably, Vladimir Putin does not use Alexei Navalny's name there. He says the person that you have mentioned. He says the outcome for him wouldn't be much different from anybody who goes into a Russian prison. Do you think Vladimir Putin would let Alexei Navalny die in prison?

VOLKOV: Well, first of all, Vladimir Putin didn't say no. The fact of never mentioning Alexei Navalny by name, this is something cultlike, a voodoo cult, that someone really kind of instructed Mr. Putin never to mention Alexei Navalny by name in some mystical way. Now I'm quite optimistic about Alexei's fate because now when the world knows and follows that Alexei Navalny is in President Putin's custody being his, like, personal prisoner, I think the stakes are too high for Putin just to let him die there. But if the focus of international attention fades away, then, of course, Putin will repeat his attempts to get rid of his main opponent.

KING: If he were to die in prison, what do you imagine the reaction in Russia would be?

VOLKOV: I prefer not to talk about it. I'm sorry, but I have to say that I didn't like the remarks that the American State Department has delivered that if Navalny dies, President Putin will face severe repercussions. So I'd better discuss what we could do in Russia not to let him die. So that's why, for instance, we are advocating for personal sanctions against Putin's money when we are talking to Western politicians. And that's why we are asking all our supporters to participate in our tactical voting against the upcoming Duma elections in September, which could also be used as a tool for deterrence.

KING: You've been in Washington, D.C., meeting with officials at the State Department and lawmakers before President Biden meets with Vladimir Putin. What have you been asking American officials to do?

VOLKOV: Well, I was on a mission initiated and inspired by Alexei Navalny himself to deliver some policy points and policy suggestions. And the most important one, that there is no such thing as a reset button. They all prefer to deal with these people who know how to compromise. But Vladimir Putin is not such a person, and the only way to talk to him is to build leverage. And in our opinion, this leverage now exists on the American side with the potential sanctions against Putin's own assets, against his oligarch friends and also a political leverage because Putin very much needs this picture of him, like, shaking hands with Biden to sell to Russian voters because of the upcoming Duma elections in just three months.

KING: The United States has been putting sanctions on Russian individuals since at least the Obama administration. And Vladimir Putin is still doing what Vladimir Putin does. He has not changed his behavior. Why would we believe that sanctions work?

VOLKOV: So we didn't ever see sanctions against individuals who would be vulnerable. They have some symbolic importance, of course, but they were not painful at all. We all know that President Putin is very much money driven. And, of course, you hardly could find a bank account labeled Vladimir Putin anywhere in the world, but I'm pretty sure that, like, American Treasury knows that there are bank accounts of his oligarch friends who are nominal holders of his assets everywhere in the world. And this could really create a lot of leverage if his assets are being targeted.

KING: I'd like to follow up on the parliamentary elections coming up in September in Russia. This may offer Vladimir Putin an opportunity to tighten his grip on power even further. Your organization cannot run for office because you have been labeled an extremist network. If you are not part of what is ostensibly a democratic process, what are your options?

VOLKOV: You mentioned that Vladimir Putin wants to tighten his grip, but that's not possible. His grip is as tight as it could be. He possesses all the money, all the power, everything in the country. Like now we have 450 members of the Parliament of the State Duma, and there is not a single dissidencer. And this makes him very nervous. Like, imagine you have already won all the chips and still you are forced to play all in. And that's why Putin is trying to eliminate all the possible potential threat from the very beginning, so doing crazy things like, for instance, completely outlawing our political organizations and disenfranchising from being on the ballot. And still, we have an answer. So our strategy, which is called smart voting, it's that in every district we identify some candidate who doesn't belong to our movement. He's probably also quite a bad guy. No good guys will be allowed to participate, but still someone who has the best possible chances to defeat the incumbent United Russia member of Parliament. And we support them. We endorse them. We ask all our supporters to vote for them, which will hopefully make the national Parliament much more turbulent and competitive. There's going to be competition among bad guys, but even such a competition is much better than a complete lack of competition that we enjoy now.

KING: Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, thank you so much for taking the time today.

VOLKOV: Thank you so much. It's been my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.