The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on senior Russian government officials and Russian entities in a coordinated action with the European Union as US intelligence concluded that Moscow attempt to kill opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent.
The announcement, made by senior Biden administration officials, marked a sharp turn away from former President Donald Trump’s reluctance to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In his first major action against Russia since taking office, President Joe Biden‘s administration said it was freezing any US assets and criminalising transactions with seven senior Russians including the director of the FSB security service.
US intelligence assessed “with high confidence” that officers of the FSB, successor to the KGB, poisoned Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok on August 20, 2020, a US official told reporters.
Alexei Navalny fell ill on a flight in Siberia in August and was airlifted to Germany, where doctors concluded he had been poisoned with a nerve agent. The Kremlin has denied any role in his illness and said it had seen no proof he was poisoned.
The officials said Navalny was targeted for his activism in trying to raise questions about what they called Russian corruption.
“Russia’s attempt to kill Mr. Navalny follows an alarming pattern of chemical weapons use by Russia,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters on a call.
The officials said seven senior Russian government officials would face sanctions, such as asset freezes. In addition 14 entities associated with Russia’s biological and chemical agent production, including 13 commercial parties and a government research institute, were levied punitive measures.
The U.S. moves were being taken in coordination with the European Union. The officials reiterated Biden’s call for Russia to release Navalny from prison.
Biden has taken a tougher approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin than Trump.
“The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate,” one official said.
“We believe that the United States and our partners must be clear and impose costs when Russia’s behavior crosses boundaries that are respected by responsible nations, and we believe there should be guard rails on how these adversarial aspects of our relationship play out,” the official said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday before the U.S. announcement that Moscow would respond in kind to any new U.S. sanctions over Navalny, the Interfax news agency reported.
After his medical treatment in Germany, Navalny, 44, returned to Russia in January. He was arrested and later sentenced to more than 2-1/2 years in jail for parole violations he said were trumped up.
Navalny has persisted in needling Putin, releasing a viral video that purported to show a palatial Black Sea residence belonging to the president, who was forced to deny publicly that it was his.
The dissident has also mockingly said that the veteran Russian leader “will go down in history as a poisoner of underpants” — where agents allegedly placed the Novichok.
Further sanctions are upcoming, as the United States assesses the Russian role in the massive SolarWinds cyber hack and allegations that Russia sought to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election and offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, the officials said.