The Biden administration imposed a raft of sanctions on Russian officials and entities on Tuesday in response to the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
The actions — taken in coordination with the European Union, which also unveiled sanctions — represent the first significant move against Moscow since Joe Biden became President.
The Treasury Department sanctioned seven senior Russian government officials: two of President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chiefs of staff, two Russian defense ministers, the Russian prosecutor general, the director of the Federal Penitentiary Service and the head of Russia’s security services, the FSB. In addition, the State Department sanctioned the FSB as an entity, a designation that department spokesperson Ned Price said “speaks to where we believe culpability lies.”
A senior administration official on Tuesday revealed that the intelligence community had assessed with high confidence that the FSB had poisoned Navalny in August 2020 with the nerve agent Novichok. A CNN and Bellingcat investigation identified FSB specialists who trailed Navalny prior to his poisoning.
Navalny was detained upon his return to Russia in mid-January after five months in Germany, where he received treatment for the poisoning that nearly killed him.
The Commerce Department added 14 parties to the entities list for their engagement “in activities that are contrary to US national security and foreign policy interests,” another senior official said. “Specifically, these parties are all involved in various aspects of biological agents production and chemical production.”
In addition, the State Department expanded on existing Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act sanctions that had been imposed after Russia poisoned ex-spy Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018.
It also sanctioned Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, and two GRU officers for having “engaged in activities that materially contribute to the possession, transport, and use of WMD by Russia, namely the chemical weapon Novichok,” according to a State Department fact sheet. The two officers “conducted a poisoning using a Novichok nerve agent in the United Kingdom in 2018,” the document said.
Of the seven individuals designated by the Treasury Department, five had already been sanctioned by the EU and UK for Navalny’s poisoning and two had been sanctioned by the EU for his imprisonment.
Administration officials stressed the significance of the complementary actions taken by the US and EU, which sanctioned four Russian nationals on Tuesday.
“Our sanctions were significant. Europe’s actions were significant. Taken together this is a sizable penalty for Russia. It is a sizable penalty to which Russia was not subject prior to today,” State Department spokesperson Price said at the daily briefing Tuesday.
“When United States and Europe act in conjunction with one another, when we both take steps to impose these costs, those costs will be noticed in Moscow. And it will also be noticed that the international community is standing up to underscore a norm that chemical weapons cannot ever be used, anytime, any place and by anyone. That is a clear signal that we sought to send today with our closest allies and partners,” he said.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in a statement Tuesday that the United States shares “the EU’s concerns regarding Russia’s deepening authoritarianism and (welcomes) the EU’s determination to impose sanctions on Russia under its new global human rights authorities.”
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) said in late January it had submitted a list of 35 people in a letter addressed to Biden, with eight individuals named as priorities for sanctions. Those priority names included Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko. Neither was sanctioned by the United States on Tuesday.
However, a senior administration official told reporters on a call Tuesday that they “retain the ability to go further, and, you know, depending on our assessment of Russian behavior going forward, we will exercise further options as we need to.”
“It’s clear … that the Russian officials have targeted Mr. Navalny for his activism and efforts to reveal uncomfortable truths about Russian officials’ corruption and give voice to Russian citizens’ legitimate grievances with their government and its policies,” another official said. “We’re exercising our authorities to send a clear signal that Russia’s use of chemical weapons and violation of its international human rights commitments have severe consequences.”
US lawmakers and allies, including the UK, praised the sanctions, with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeting that the British government “welcomes EU and US sanctions against those responsible for the poisoning and arbitrary detention” of Navalny.
Russian officials were silent on the specifics of sanctions, but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that overall the policy of sanctions “is not achieving its goals.”
“For those who continue this, one might say, dependence on some kind of restrictions in the way they conduct bilateral affairs, it is probably time for them to think about whether they are achieving any goals by continuing this policy, and whether it is just making the bilateral relationship worse … whether this policy is effective,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.
“And the answer to that would be obvious: This policy is not achieving its goals,” he added.
Biden administration officials stressed that the US sanctions over the Navalny poisoning are just the first in a series of responses to Russian actions, with “more to come” on several fronts, including the SolarWinds cyber attack.
Senior administration officials made clear in the call with reporters that their approach to Russia would be a break from that of former President Donald Trump, who was criticized for being too soft on Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The tone and substance of our conversations with Russia and our conversations about Russia will be very different from what you saw in the previous administration,” one of the officials said.
That senior administration official said that the US is neither seeking to “reset” nor escalate its relationship with Russia. Instead, the Biden administration’s goal is to have a “predictable and stable” relationship.
Beyond Navalny’s poisoning, the Biden administration is engaged in a broad review of Russian misdeeds ranging from the massive SolarWinds breach to alleged bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan to interference in America’s elections.
“We are looking at all of this, and I can tell you with some confidence that we will take the appropriate actions as we see fit to make very clear that this kind of conduct is unacceptable for us, and we’ll do it with our allies and partners,” Blinken said in an interview with former Secretary Hillary Clinton that aired Tuesday but had been taped prior to the sanctions announcement.