On Tuesday, The White House will announce President Joe Biden’s first sanctions against Russia over the Russian government’s poisoning and detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a State Department official confirmed on Monday.
The Biden administration sanctioned seven “senior” Russian officials and added one government research institute and 13 businesses to its export restrictions, senior administration officials announced Tuesday morning.
The sanctions were taken in concert with the European Union, with the bloc’s 27 members announcing Tuesday penalties on four Russian officials for Navalny’s imprisonment — its first sanctions under its new human rights sanction program.
Navalny, the leading opposition figure to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been moved to a remote penal colony to serve his two-and-a-half-year sentence, a public commission confirmed Sunday. He was arrested for a probation violation after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was treated after being poisoned with a chemical weapon.
Last August, Navalny became sick on a flight in Siberia and was airlifted to Germany, where doctors concluded he was poisoned with Novichok, the military-grade nerve agent. The Kremlin has denied any role and cast doubt on whether Navalny was poisoned.
But a senior administration official said Tuesday the U.S. intelligence community “assesses with high confidence that officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service, FSB, used a nerve agent known as Novichok to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on August 20, 2020.”
That attack “follows an alarming pattern of chemical weapons use by Russia,” the official added, that requires a response.
The names of the sanctioned Russian officials and 14 entities added to the Commerce Department’s export control list were not yet published Tuesday.
In a report issued Monday, two United Nations’ special rapporteurs also blamed the Russian government- saying it attempted to kill Navalny and calling it part of an “apparent pattern of attempted targeted killings” to silence critics.
Former President Donald Trump never took action to penalize Russia, at times even casting doubt on the conclusion that Navalny had been poisoned: “It’s tragic. It’s terrible. It shouldn’t happen. We haven’t had any proof yet, but I will take a look,” he said in September.
That meant Biden’s administration is “in many ways catching up to the EU and the UK,” both of which sanctioned six individuals and one entity in October, according to a second senior official. Coordinating with those key U.S. allies makes these sanctions “stronger and more effective, particularly when it comes to Russia,” the official added, because Europe has closer business ties.
Biden has said he will bring a tougher approach to Putin and end Trump’s “rolling over” as the Russian president pursues repressive policies at home and aggressive campaigns overseas, from Ukraine to Venezuela to the U.S.
Upon taking office, Biden ordered the U.S. intelligence community to issue an assessment on Navalny’s poisoning, along with the SolarWinds hack, the alleged bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and Russian interference in the 2020 election. While those reviews continue- likely weeks, not days away- the administration is still trying to move quickly on Navalny’s case with these penalties.
Some critics have urged the U.S. and its European allies to go further over Navalny’s imprisonment, but it seems Biden may be unwilling to push too far and have relations spiral further out of control. His administration is “neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate” with Russia, the first senior official said Tuesday.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. have called for action since Navalny was arrested upon his return to Russia — a move by Russian security forces that brought tens of thousands into the streets across the country in some of the largest demonstrations against the Kremlin in years.
In a letter last month, the Democratic chair and Republican ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee urged Biden to implement sanctions for the use of a chemical weapon as required by U.S. law.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to comment on any sanctions earlier on Monday, but told reporters the administration was coordinating “very closely” with U.S. allies in Europe: “Nothing we do would take the EU by surprise and vice versa.”