By Alfonso Fernandez
Washington, Mar 2 (efe-epa).- The US government on Tuesday announced sanctions on seven senior Russian officials, including the head of Russian intelligence, Alexander Bortnikov, over the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in recently-inaugurated President Joe Biden’s first major move against Moscow.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the aim of the sanctions is to send “a clear signal that Russia’s use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences.”
“We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny,” he said.
These are the first sanctions imposed on Moscow by Biden, who took office on Jan. 20.
With these sanctions, the US adds its own penalties to those previously imposed on Moscow by the European Union and shares European concerns over increasing “authoritarianism” in Russia, Blinken said.
During his participation last month in the Munich Security Conference, Biden declared that the trans-Atlantic alliance between the US and Europe “is back” after four years of tension, a reference to former President Donald Trump, whose stance vis-a-vis Europe – and many other US allies – was one of aggressive nationalism.
Regarding Moscow, Biden warned that “Russian leaders want people to think that our system is more corrupt or as corrupt as theirs. But the world knows that isn’t true, including Russians – Russia’s own citizens.”
Russian President Vladimir “Putin seeks to weaken European – the European project and our NATO Alliance. He wants to undermine the transatlantic unity and our resolve, because it’s so much easier for the Kremlin to bully and threaten individual states than it is to negotiate with a strong and closely united transatlantic community,” Biden said.
Along with Bortnikov, Washington imposed sanctions on Russian chief prosecutor Igor Krasnov; the administrator of Russia’s prisons, Alexandr Kalashnikov; Putin’s assistant cabinet chief Sergei Kiriyenko; and Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko.
The sanctions freeze the assets these top officials may have under US jurisdiction and prohibit financial transactions with US entities.
In addition, restrictions are being imposed on certain Russian exports and the issuing of visas to individuals included on the sanction list is being halted.
Washington said, in addition, that reliable reports had confirmed that Navalny was poisoned by Russian intelligence operatives with the nerve agent Novichok.
The 44-year-old Russian opposition figure is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year prison term on an old conviction for fraud and money laundering, and his being jailed in late January sparked huge protests all across Russia during which security forces and police arrested thousands.
In a telephone call with journalists to provide details of the sanctions, top Biden administration officials remarked that the move underlines the change in tone in Washington from that of the Trump administration.
A “review (of Russian behavior) is ongoing and we of course reserve the right to take additional steps and take additional action at the conclusion,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday in a press briefing.
In late January, Biden held a telephone conversation with Putin in which he discussed extending the New START nuclear disarmament treaty and called for Navalny’s release.
The US leader thus joins his predecessors – Trump and Barack Obama – who also imposed several rounds of economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia for actions they considered to be violations of international norms, including the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s meddling in US elections.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday denounced Washington’s new sanctions as “meddling in our internal affairs,” adding that “we aren’t going to tolerate that,” and “we will respond in kind.”
“Attempts to put pressure on Russia with sanctions or other tools have failed in the past and will fail again,” she said.