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White House Slaps Sanctions On Russia Over Navalny Poisoning

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny during a court hearing in Moscow last month. Navalny, who was poisoned last year, was jailed in Russia upon his return from medical treatment in Germany.
Moscow City Court
Tass via Getty Images
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny during a court hearing in Moscow last month. Navalny, who was poisoned last year, was jailed in Russia upon his return from medical treatment in Germany.

Updated at 1:15 p.m. ET

The Biden administration, signaling a tougher stance on Russia than under the Trump White House, announced Tuesday new sanctions targeting seven senior Kremlin officials in response to last year's poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Senior administration officials, speaking to reporters on a conference call, said the sanctions also include export controls on 14 parties — nine Russian, three German and one Swiss, and three Russian government research institutes, most of which are believed to be involved in the production of chemical and biological agents.

Later, the Treasury Department released a list of the sanctioned individuals. They are: Aleksandr Bortinkov, director of Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor to the KGB; Alexander Kalashnikov, director of the Russian Penitentiary Service, or FSIN; Sergey Kiriyenko, deputy chief of staff to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a former prime minister; Russia's prosecutor-general, Igor Krasnov; deputy defense ministers Col. Gen. Aleksey Krivoruchko and Gen. of the Army Pavel Popov; and Andrei Yarin, director of Russia's Presidential Domestic Policy Directorate.

The Treasury Department also announced sanctions on the FSB and GRU, the Russian military's intelligence agency.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the actions were taken "to send a clear signal that Russia's use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences. Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms."

U.S. officials said the moves were being coordinated with the European Union, although human rights advocates have previously criticized the EU for failing to target the most important Russian officials allegedly involved. The EU announced new sanctions Tuesday targeting high-ranking Russian officials over the attack and prosecution of Navalny, Putin's most high-profile political foe.

"We're in many ways catching up to the EU and U.K.," one of the U.S. officials said, noting that European officials announced some of their sanctions in October and are adding to those sanctions on Tuesday.

In Tuesday's conference call, officials also announced that a U.S. intelligence assessment had concluded with "high confidence" that Russian intelligence officers "used a nerve agent known as Novichok to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Aug. 20, 2020."

Speaking at a news conference in Geneva on Monday, United Nations special rapporteurs Agnès Callamard and Irene Khan said they had reached the same conclusion that "Russia is responsible for the attempted arbitrary killing of Mr. Navalny."

The Kremlin has denied any role in the attack against Navalny, but toxicology tests in Germany, where the opposition leader received treatment, identified the substance as the Soviet-era Novichok, which most experts agree could only be obtained through a state actor.

Administration officials also noted Russia's use of Novichok in the 2018 attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer, carried out in the U.K.

On his return to Russia after treatment in Germany, Navalny, 44, was promptly arrested and later sentenced to two years in a penal colony. In recent weeks, thousands of protesters in Russia have been arrested after publicly voicing their support for Navalny.

In Tuesday's briefing, Biden administration officials reiterated a call for Navalny's release. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights made a similar plea, but was rebuffed by the Kremlin.

The latest White House sanctions are meant to signal a tougher line on Russia. The Trump administration declined to take action against Russia after the attack on Navalny, which the senior Biden administration officials described as an attempted assassination.

"The tone and subject of our conversation with Russia and our conversations about Russia will be very different than what you saw in the previous administration," one official said.

The Biden administration planned further steps to respond to what officials called "a number of destabilizing actions," by Russia.

Under the actions, property belonging to the sanctioned individuals can be seized by the U.S., and U.S. citizens are prohibited from doing business with them. The practical effects of the sanctions are limited: the seven Russian officials have few, if any, financial interests in the United States.

The Navalny poisoning is one of four areas of tension between the United States and Russia that the Biden administration has been reviewing since taking office in January. A response to the SolarWinds cyber hack, believed to be of Russian origin, is also under review, with an announcement expected within weeks, the officials said.

"The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate," one of the officials told reporters, noting that the Biden administration is willing to work with Russia in areas that are mutually beneficial, such as the five-year extension of the New START nuclear weapons treaty announced in January after being suspended by the Trump administration.

"We expect this relationship to be a challenge and it's one that we are prepared for," the official said. "Given Russia's conduct in recent months, there will no doubt be adversarial elements and we will not shy away from those."

The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Moscow over its interference in the 2016 presidential elections by expelling dozens of Russian diplomats.

But former President Donald Trump generally took a softer approach to Russia. He repeatedly denied evidence from U.S. intelligence agencies who affirmed the Russian hacking in the election. Trump also downplayed the SolarWinds attack, despite his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, calling it "a very significant effort."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.