The Biden administration took its first major swipe at Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, coordinating with the European Union on a slate of sanctions on Kremlin officials close to the Russian president in retaliation for the poisoning and jailing of Alexei Navalny, Mr. Putin’s most prominent domestic critic.
The moves drew sharp condemnation from the Kremlin but were praised by both sides of the aisle in Washington. Some Republican lawmakers argued that the White House should have gone further to send a message against Russian influence operations abroad — specifically in Western Europe.
The sanctions were not as broad as some of Mr. Navalny’s supporters had hoped, sparing Russian banks and businesses that the opposition says are critical to Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule. They also did not directly address, for now, charges that Russian agents were behind the massive SolarWinds hack of government and private-sector networks last year.
The U.S. and EU moves were “not meant to be a silver bullet or an end date to what has been a difficult relationship with Russia,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “We expect the relationship to continue to be a challenge.
“We’re neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia, nor are we seeking to escalate,” she added.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised the response to the Navalny affair but said Mr. Biden should have gone further with sanctions against companies constructing Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, which Mr. McCaul described as “Putin’s most lucrative Russian malign influence project.”
The administration imposed asset transfer and export restrictions on seven officials of the Russian government, as well as 14 companies. The actions represent Mr. Biden’s first sanctions against associates of Mr. Putin, after the complicated U.S.-Russian relationship forged between Mr. Putin and President Trump.
The European Union announced its own asset freezes and travel restrictions on four top Russian officials. Biden administration officials for the first time openly blamed Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) for poisoning Mr. Navalny in August with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.
U.S. officials told reporters on a conference call that the U.S. intelligence community had concluded with “high confidence” that the FSB was responsible.
“We’re exercising our authorities to send a clear signal that Russia’s use of chemical weapons and violation of its international human rights commitments have severe consequences,” one senior administration official said on the call.
The seven officials sanctioned Tuesday included FSB Chief Alexander Bortnikov, Putin Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko.
The State Department said it was separately adding the Russian government’s State Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, as well as a handful of other entities, to a list of groups that could trigger sanctions against individuals who work with those entities.
The Commerce Department, meanwhile, added 14 parties — nine Russian, three German, and one Swiss party, plus a government research institute — to a special designations list requiring specific U.S. licensing for exports.
The EU on Tuesday imposed travel bans and asset freezes in Europe on Mr. Kalashnikov and Mr. Krasnov, as well as on Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard, and Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s investigative committee.
The Biden administration had signaled for weeks that actions against Russia were coming. Besides the Navalny sanctions, officials have said the administration is weighing its response to the SolarWinds hack that laid bare vulnerabilities in the U.S. cybersecurity systems.
The Putin government vowed to retaliates, according to the official Tass news agency in Moscow.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the U.S. sanctions as part of its “meddling in our internal affairs.”
“We aren’t going to tolerate that …,” Ms. Zakharova said in a statement to The Associated Press. “Attempts to put pressure on Russia with sanctions or other tools have failed in the past and will fail again.”
Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Leonid Slutsky told Tass that the EU sanctions were “just as wrongful as they are useless” and a “step in the chain of provocations” aimed at containing Russia.
The Kremlin has denied involvement in the Navalny poisoning. The 44-year-old opposition leader was sickened in an attack in August and spent months recuperating in Germany. Upon flying home to Moscow in January, he was arrested at the airport in the Russian capital and charged with a parole violation.
Mr. Navalny’s detention sparked street protests across Russia. Police arrested thousands of demonstrators. Authorities transferred the opposition leader to a penal colony to begin serving a sentence after what rights groups said was a show trial.
Long a target in Russian government attempts to shut down dissent, Mr. Navalny has repeatedly appealed to the West to start targeting the most powerful business and financial oligarchs of his country. Only then, he said, would Russian leaders take international sanctions seriously.
Simon Miles, a Russian scholar at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, said the Biden administration sent “the right signal” by coordinating its sanctions announcement with the European Union.
“We know directly from sources in the Russian intelligence community that this was a Kremlin-sanctioned operation, and the United States and its European partners should make it clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that using nerve agents to poison the politically inconvenient will not be tolerated,” Mr. Miles said in remarks circulated to reporters. “The treatment of Navalny has brought thousands of Russians out in opposition to the Kremlin’s tactics, and the White House is right to add its voice to theirs.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called the U.S. moves overdue. “We must use an array of tools, including sanctions, to meaningfully deter, repel, and punish Moscow’s transgressions,” Mr. Schiff said in a statement.
Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, asserted in a statement that “sanctions against those accountable for the horrific poisoning and unjust detention of Alexei Navalny send a strong message that the United States will not tolerate the Putin regime’s corruption and lawlessness.”
“The U.S. government has exercised its authorities to send a clear signal that Russia’s use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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