U.S. Expected to Sanction Russians over Navalny Poisoning: Sources

Responding to Alexei Navalny’s poisoning last year, President Joe Biden’s administration announced sanctions against seven Russian government officials, and military intelligence agencies Federal Security Service (FSB) and Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU).

Before the announcement, two anonymous sources said the United States was expected to implement two executive orders. The first was order 13661, allowing broad authority for targeting Russian officials, and the second 13382, was issued to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Both enable the U.S. to freeze assets owned by those sanctioned, and bar their negotiation with American individuals and companies, but the administration plans further punishment under the U.S. Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act of 1991. Such measures indicate Biden’s stricter approach toward Russia than his predecessor Donald Trump, who acknowledged but also expressed skepticism over Navalny’s poisoning, and took no punitive action. 

In a conference call before the sanctions were announced, U.S. intelligence concluded with “high confidence” that Russian officers used the soviet-era nerve agent Novichok “to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Aug 20, 2020.” According to National Public Radio, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the sanctions were intended to communicate “that Russia’s use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences.” The sanctions were coordinated with the European Union, which targeted four Russians deemed responsible in Navalny’s prosecution and sentencing to two and a half years in prison, for violating a sentence alleging embezzlement.

Declaring “the days of the [U.S.] rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions… are over,” Joe Biden demanded Navalny’s release from his “politically motivated” imprisonment. Notwithstanding, his administration maintains the U.S. neither seeks “to reset our relations with Russia, nor… to escalate.” One official noted willingness for cooperation, but recalled “Russia’s conduct in recent months.” “There will no doubt be adversarial elements and we will not shy away,” the official assured.

Along with imposing sanctions, Joe Biden has criticized Russian president Vladimir Putin. Interviewing with ABC, Biden agreed that Putin is a “killer” and said he will “pay a price” for attempting to undermine the 2020 U.S. election. Biden’s assertive stance demonstrates valid concern for Russia’s activity, but he should not overlook the consequences. Russia’s U.S. embassy warned his public criticisms put strained relations “under the threat of collapse.” In a prepared statement, Putin responded “[W]hatever you say about others is what you are yourself.”

Amid rising tensions, the White House invited Putin to April’s climate summit, desiring cooperation on climate change. However, if relations continue deteriorating, the Kremlin, saying it needs time to consider attending, may recoil from negotiations. Imposing sanctions is pragmatic for punishing Russia’s apparent role in Navalny’s poisoning. Nevertheless, Biden’s condemnations are harmful, and may hinder climate goals with Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Negotiating to accommodate U.S. and Russian interests, while maintaining mutual respect, should not be conflated with approving of Putin’s handling of domestic affairs, or excusing election interference allegations.

Last August, Navalny became ill aboard a flight. Following an emergency landing in Omsk, he was hospitalized and went into a coma. Supporting suspicions of poisoning, labs in Germany, France, Sweden, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons indicated Navalny was exposed to Novichok. An investigation of phone records, flight manifests and other documents by Bellingcat and CNN also revealed the FSB formed a specialized team in nerve agents, that followed him to at least 17 cities since 2017. In December, Navalny posed as a National Security Council official in telecommunication with FSB agent Konstantin Kudryavtsev, under pretense of debriefing. Kudryavtsev revealed that Navalny was poisoned in his underpants, and mentioned accomplices. In a press conference, Putin confirmed trailing Navalny, alleging U.S. intelligence supported him, and concluded “if that’s correct… of course [our] special services need to keep an eye on him.” However, he denied poisoning Navalny, insisting “[I]f there was such a desire, it would have been done.” He called Navalny’s reports “implanted stories,” claiming the CNN-Bellingcat investigation was “information warfare.”

Kudryavtsev’s December admissions strongly suggest that Russia’s government poisoned Navalny. On the other hand, a CNN article proposed that “[S]hort of injecting exactly the right dose into someone, it is almost impossible… to dose Novichok… to incapacitate rather than kill.” Additionally, chief physician at Omsk’s Emergency Hospital Number One Alexander Murakhovsky attributed Navalny’s illness and coma to a carbohydrate deficiency, from a dramatic decrease in blood sugar on the plane. Corroboration on the incident of Navalny’s poisoning is lacking between European labs, U.S. intelligence, Russian doctors, and CNN’s insight. Their conflicting insight indicates ongoing opposition between Russia and the West. Therefore, denouncing human rights violations is appropriate, but President Biden should ease his rhetoric. Superfluous aggression may evoke unnecessary confrontation, compromising U.S. interests to no lesser extent, than an excessively relaxed approach.