Biden administration announces first sanctions on Russia in Navalny case

By David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger

The Biden administration Tuesday declassified an intelligence finding that the FSB, one of Russia’s leading intelligence agencies, orchestrated the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and announced its first sanctions against the Russian government for the attack and his imprisonment.

The sanctions closely mirrored a series of actions that European nations and Britain took in October and expanded on Monday. Senior officials said it was part of an effort to show unity in the Biden administration’s first confrontations with the government of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

But none of the sanctions were specifically directed at Putin or the oligarchs who support the Russian leader.

Just as President Joe Biden held back last week from direct sanctions against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia for his role in the operation that killed Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident, the U.S. sanctions did not touch Russia’s senior leadership.

Navalny’s supporters praised the sanctions announced Tuesday, although the measures fell well short of the sweeping action that the opposition leader’s team had called for as he was being sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. One of Navalny’s top allies, Vladimir Ashurkov, sent Biden a letter in January arguing that only sanctions on top Russian decision-makers, along with the business figures he said held their money, could “make the regime change its behavior.”

“The most painful sanctions, which, unfortunately, neither Europe nor the United States have yet reached, would be sanctions against oligarchs,” Maria Pevchikh, another Navalny ally, posted on Twitter on Tuesday.

In announcing the role of the FSB, or Federal Security Service, in the poisoning, U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the reports of many news organizations, some of which traced the individual agents who tracked Navalny and attacked him with Novichok, a nerve agent that Russia has used against other dissidents. It was unclear if the United States planned to release a formal report, as it did last week when it confirmed 2-year-old findings on Khashoggi, or whether it would simply summarize the key finding in the Navalny case.

The sanctions are notable chiefly because they are the first Biden has taken in the five weeks since he became president. While most presidents have come into office declaring they would seek a reset of relations with Russia, Biden has done the opposite. He has warned that Putin is driving his country into an era of authoritarianism and promised to push back on human rights violations and efforts to destabilize Europe.

An official told reporters Tuesday morning that the Biden administration was not seeking to reset relations or escalate confrontations. The test may come in the next few weeks, when the administration is expected to announce its response to the SolarWinds cyberattack, in which suspected Russian hackers bore deeply into nine government agencies and more than 100 companies, stealing data and planting “back doors” into their computer networks.

While the Navalny case was a vivid example of Russian brutality — his FSB attackers stalked him as he traveled across Europe and apparently applied the nerve agent to his underwear — the Biden administration sees SolarWinds as a more direct attack on the United States. Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, said the response “will not simply be sanctions” and hinted at some kind of covert response as well.

A senior U.S. official said the action announced Tuesday was in many ways catching up to designations that the Europeans had already made. The official said the main effort was to assure that the United States and Europe were “on the same page” after several months in which European sanctions went beyond any imposed by Washington.

The European Union on Monday approved sanctions on four senior Russian officials considered responsible for the prosecution and imprisonment of Navalny.

The decision, approved by the member states, went into effect Tuesday and represents the first time the European Union has used new powers under its version of the Magnitsky Act, which allows Brussels to impose sanctions on human rights violators worldwide.

The new sanctions are narrowly drawn to target those who were directly and legally responsible for Navalny’s conviction in what appeared to be a show trial and his subsequent imprisonment upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he recuperated from the poisoning.

The European Union has already imposed sanctions on six Russians and a state scientific research center in response to the attack on Navalny.

These latest European actions, which are travel bans and asset freezes, cover four individuals: two prosecutorial officials, the head of Russia’s National Guard and the head of Russia’s prison service.

They are Igor Krasnov, Russia’s prosecutor general; Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, which handles investigations into major crimes and reports directly to Putin; Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia’s National Guard and a former Putin bodyguard, who threatened Navalny in September 2018; and Alexander Kalashnikov, head of Russia’s prison service.

The Treasury Department froze the assets of Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, but officials acknowledged that given his position he was unlikely to have left assets in the United States or Europe.

The European Union was under further pressure to respond to Navalny’s conviction last month to another 2 1/2 years in prison after Josep Borrell Fontelles, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, made a controversial visit to Moscow, failed to visit Navalny and was criticized for his mild response to accusations by Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, that the European Union was “an unreliable partner.”

Even though the European and U.S. sanctions fell short of targeting prominent Russian oligarchs, officials in Moscow were quick to condemn the Biden administration’s move.

“I have no doubt that the new sanctions will not go unanswered,” Leonid Slutsky, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of Parliament, told Interfax news agency. “This is yet another step toward the degradation of relations between Russia and Western countries.”

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