U.S. President Joe Biden's administration announced sanctions on Russian officials and businesses Tuesday for a nearly fatal nerve-agent attack against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his subsequent jailing.
The U.S. co-ordinated the penalties with the European Union, which already had imposed sanctions against a small number of Russian officials in Navalny's case.
Senior U.S. officials did not immediately identify the Russian officials targeted. The Biden administration also announced sanctions under the U.S. Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act for 14 businesses and another enterprise, most of which it said were involved in production of biological and chemical agents.
First of several steps
The U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that Russia's Federal Security Service used the Russian nerve agent Novichok on the dissident last August, a senior administration official said.
Tuesday's sanctions are the first against Russia by the Biden administration. They would be the first of several steps that aim to "respond to a number of destabilizing actions," said an administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition they not be identified further.
The Biden administration has pledged to confront Russia's President Vladimir Putin for alleged attacks on Russian opposition figures and hacking abroad, including of U.S. government agencies and U.S. businesses. Former U.S. president Donald Trump had spoken admiringly of Putin, and resisted criticism and many proposed penalties of Putin's government.
The 27-nation European bloc imposed bans on travel and froze the assets in Europe of Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation; Igor Krasnov, the prosecutor-general; Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard; and Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Prison Service.
Some rights groups previously faulted the EU for not targeting the most important Russian officials allegedly involved.
For its part, the Biden administration had foreshadowed potential actions against Russia for weeks. Besides the Navalny sanctions, officials have said the administration plans to respond soon to the massive Russian hack of federal government agencies and private corporations that laid bare vulnerabilities in the cyber supply chain and exposed potentially sensitive secrets to elite Kremlin spies.
UN has called for investigation into the poisoning
Navalny, 44, was sickened by a nerve agent in an attack that the United States and others linked to Putin's security services. After months of recuperation in Germany, Navalny flew home to Moscow in January and was arrested upon arrival for an alleged parole violation.
His detention sparked street protests across Russia. Police arrested thousands of demonstrators. Authorities have transferred the opposition leader to a penal colony outside of Moscow to begin serving a sentence of over two years in prison for an embezzlement conviction, in what rights groups said was a show trial.
Two top United Nations human rights experts on Monday urged an international probe into Navalny's poisoning and called or his immediate release from prison.
Agnes Callamard, the Special UN Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and Irene Khan, the Special UN Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said the poison attack was intended to "send a clear, sinister warning that this would be the fate of anyone who would criticize and oppose the government."
The experts emphasized in the letter that Navalny "was under intensive government surveillance at the time of the attempted killing, making it unlikely that any third party could have administered such a banned chemical without the knowledge of the Russian authorities."
Russian officials have dismissed demands from the United States and the European Union to free Navalny and stop the crackdown on his supporters.
Mikhail Galperin, Russia's deputy justice minister, said Monday that Moscow has contested the European Court of Human Rights's ruling demanding Navalny's release, in the form of a letter sent to the Strasbourg-based court.