“Suffice it to say,” added the official, “we will not stand idly by in the face of these human rights violations.”
The poisoning of Navalny by Russian security forces last August and his recent detention in Moscow were deemed urgent enough to warrant a response, though the government’s broader policy review between the US and Russia launched in January is ongoing, said those familiar with the internal discussions.
Several Russian experts said the US shouldn’t wait to respond, especially after a Russian court paved the way for Navalny to be transferred to a penal colony last week.
“You are right to conduct this broader review, but at Navalny you should take action sooner,” said Daniel Fried, who was Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2005 to 2009.
“I don’t think we can stop [Russian President] Putin did not send Navalny to a penal colony, ”Fried said. “But if we act quickly now, at least according to Putin’s calculations, the US is ready to act.”
Navalny, 44, was poisoned last August with the nerve agent Novichok, a deadly substance believed to be a prohibited chemical weapon by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Kremlin denied involvement, but the Foreign Ministry publicly attributed the attack to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in December. After months of treatment in Germany, Navalny recovered and flew to Moscow, where he was immediately arrested for violating the terms of a probation contract. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to almost three years in prison, which sparked massive protests across Russia and condemnation from the international community.
It is not the first time that Russian security forces have tried to use Novichok to assassinate Putin’s enemies. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer who served as a double agent for the British, and his daughter Yulia Skripal were poisoned with the substance in England in March 2018. In December, Navalny tricked an FSB agent to describe the conspiracy against him in which Novichok was planted in the opposition leader’s underwear.
While the broader Russia review of the new National Security Council is still ongoing, the Biden government is not starting from scratch on the Navalny issue – it has inherited a comprehensive package of sanctions from the previous government that was passed during the transition process, the with said people familiar with the transition.
The package proposed three types of sanctions: Magnitsky Act sanctions against those who detained Navalny; Sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Elimination of War Act 1991 (CBW Act); and sanctions under Executive Order 13382 – which “aims to freeze the assets of weapons of mass destruction proliferators and their supporters” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Trump sanctions package also proposed revoking the visas of certain Russian officials and restricting the export to Russia of certain dual-use items that could be used in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.
It’s not clear why the sanction proposal, which former officials said was operational in early January, stalled at the end of Trump’s tenure. However, the former president was notoriously reluctant to punish the Kremlin or confront Vladimir Putin directly, and the sanctions package would have required his approval.
However the new administration reacts, it is unlikely to use the exact draft that Trump’s national security team left behind. The current National Security Council sees this package as too one-sided and inconsistent with Biden’s commitment to work more closely with US partners on key foreign policy measures, two officials said.
Yet the US has lagged behind its allies on this issue. In response to last year’s poisoning of Navalny, the European Union sanctioned six Russians and one state scientific institute in October and this week announced its intention to sanction four other senior Russian officials for Navalny’s treatment.
Ryan Tully, who served as senior director for European and Russian affairs at NSC for the last six months in the Trump administration, said U.S. sanctions will be an important next step – along with work on ending Nord Stream 2, an ongoing export gas pipeline from Russia to Europe across the Baltic Sea that Biden has so far resisted impose further sanctions. Germany in particular is optimistic about Nord Stream 2, making multilateral action difficult, especially as the US tries to re-establish relations with Chancellor Angela Merkel after strained relations in the Trump era.
“Sanctioning Russia with the CBW Law, Magnitsky Law and / or EO 13382 for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny is an important step in strengthening the global norm against the use of chemical weapons,” Tully said. “Ultimately, however, these tools will not change Putin’s calculation or behavior. A stake in the heart of Nord Stream 2 could and would drain billions from Putin’s coffers.”