US, EU impose sanctions on Russian officials over Navalny

The United States and the EU have imposed sanctions on Russian officials accused of playing a role in the poisoning and imprisonment of the most prominent Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

The coordinated measures announced on Tuesday follow an assessment by the U.S. intelligence community that Russian security services used a Soviet-developed nerve agent called novichok to poison Navalny in August.

“The Kremlin’s use of chemical weapons to silence a political opponent and intimidate others demonstrates its blatant disregard for international standards,” Janet Yellen, US Treasury Secretary, said in a statement. “We join the EU in condemning the poisoning of Alexei Navalny as well as his arrest and imprisonment by the Russian government.”

US Treasury sanctions target seven senior Russian government officials, including Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB; and Sergei Kiriyenko and Andrei Yarin, the main domestic policy makers of Vladimir Putin.

The European bloc has also imposed travel bans and asset freezes on four people over accusations of participating in Navalny’s imprisonment and cracking down on peaceful protests. They are Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation; Viktor Zolotov, head of the national guard; Igor Krasnov, Attorney General; and Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Prison Service. Krasnov and Kalashnikov were also subject to US sanctions.

The sanctions, which also bar individuals and EU entities from funding the quartet, are the first to be rolled out under a new human rights sanctions regime endorsed by the European bloc’s last year, modeled on the American Magnitsky law.

“We share the EU’s concerns about strengthening Russia’s authoritarianism and welcome the EU’s determination to impose sanctions on Russia under its new global human rights authorities,” said Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, in a statement.

The EU previously imposed sanctions on six senior Russian officials in October for their alleged involvement in chemical weapon poisoning. Several EU countries have concluded that Navalny is being targeted with a novichok nerve agent.

The sanctions announced on Tuesday did not target high-profile oligarchs, which Navalny’s team had urged the EU and US to do.

The Russian ruble, which is sensitive to the risks of sanctions, rose more than 1% against the dollar on Tuesday on media reports that the US and EU would target government officials and waive sanctions that would harm to the Russian economy.

A senior government official told reporters that the Biden administration was neither seeking a reset nor an escalation in US relations with Russia, but would “impose costs” on Moscow for such blatant behavior.

The Biden administration has promised to take a harder approach to Russia than Donald Trump, whose administration has been marred by accusations of sympathy with Moscow. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning. The EU is plagued by long-standing internal divisions over Russia, with some countries, notably France, having advocated a Kremlin outreach policy.

The US official said Washington was likely to respond to Russia on other concerns in the “weeks” to come. Washington is still considering its response to Moscow on a large-scale cyber attack which affected at least nine federal agencies and a hundred companies. US intelligence officials said the attack was “probably of Russian origin.”

U.S. intelligence is also assessing claims that the Russians offered bounties to kill Americans in Afghanistan and allegations of electoral interference in the 2020 polls.

Navalny fell unconscious on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow in August and was later airlifted to Charity Hospital in Berlin, where he spent several weeks in a coma. After his return to Russia, he was arrested on what the senior administration described as “false accusations” and was condemned to over three years in prison last month.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Moscow

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