US and EU impose sanctions on Russian officials over Navalny poisoning

Co-ordinated measures follow US assessment that Kremlin used Novichok to silence opponent

The US and EU have imposed sanctions on Russian officials accused of playing a role in poisoning and jailing Russia's most prominent opposition politician, Alexei Navalny.

The co-ordinated measures announced on Tuesday came after an assessment from the US intelligence community that Russian security services used a Soviet-developed nerve agent called Novichok to poison Mr Navalny in August.

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

The 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, Vladimir Putin's top domestic policy officials.

The European bloc also imposed travel bans and asset freezes on four people over accusations they were involved in Mr Navalny's jailing and the repression of peaceful protests. They are Alexander Bastrykin, head of the investigative committee of the Russian Federation; Viktor Zolotov, head of the national guard; Igor Krasnov, prosecutor-general; and Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Prison Service. Krasnov and Kalashnikov were also placed under US sanctions.

The sanctions, which also forbid people and entities in the EU from funding the quartet, are the first deployed under a new human rights sanctions regime agreed by the European bloc last year, modelled on the US Magnitsky Act.

"We share the EU's concerns regarding Russia's deepening authoritarianism and welcome the EU's determination to impose sanctions on Russia under its new global human rights authorities," US secretary of state Antony Blinken said in a statement.

Sanction risks

The EU had previously imposed sanctions on six top Russian officials in October over their alleged involvement in the chemical weapon poisoning. Several EU countries concluded Mr Navalny was targeted with a novichok nerve agent.

The sanctions announced on Tuesday fell short of targeting prominent oligarchs, which Mr Navalny’s team had urged the EU and US to do.

Russia’s rouble, which is sensitive to sanction risks, rose more than one per cent against the dollar on Tuesday on media reports that the US and EU would target government officials and forgo sanctions that would harm Russia’s economy.

A senior government official told reporters the Biden administration was seeking neither reset nor escalation in the US relationship with Russia, but would “impose costs” on Moscow in cases of egregious behaviour.

The Biden administration has promised to take a tougher approach to Russia than Donald Trump, whose administration was marred by accusations of cosying up to Moscow. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning. The EU is gripped by longstanding internal divisions over Russia, with some countries, notably France, having advocated a policy of outreach to the Kremlin.

The US official said Washington was likely to respond to Russia over other concerns in the coming “weeks”. Washington is still considering its response to Moscow over a sweeping cyber attack that affected at least nine federal agencies and a hundred companies. The US intelligence officials have said the attack was “likely of Russian origin”.

US intelligence is also still assessing allegations that Russians offered bounties to kill Americans in Afghanistan and claims of election interference in the 2020 polls.

Mr Navalny fell unconscious on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow in August and was later flown to Berlin's Charité hospital, where he spent several weeks in a coma. After returning to Russia he was arrested on what the senior administration described as "spurious charges" and was sentenced to more than three years in jail last month. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021