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US, UK ramp up sanctions over Kremlin's poisoning of Navalny

By Caravanserai and AFP

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Police officers detain a woman with a poster reading 'Freedom for Alexei Navalny' in Moscow on August 14. [Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

LONDON -- Britain and the United States sanctioned several Russian officials and entities on the first anniversary last Friday (August 20) of the near-fatal poisoning of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, which the West blames on Moscow.

The individuals covered by the joint sanctions are all members of Russia's domestic security service the FSB, successor to the KGB, and accused of planning or carrying out the August 20, 2020, nerve agent attack on Navalny.

They now face asset freezes and travel bans under the second round of reprisals in which Britain targeted seven individuals for involvement in the poisoning, after it blacklisted six individuals and one entity last October.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, using Telegram, condemned the "unilateral, illegitimate" sanctions.

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In this file photo taken on May 26, jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny appears on screen via a video link from prison during a court hearing, at a court in the town of Petushki, some 120km outside Moscow. [Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

"Russia has called several times on Britain and its partners to provide all the evidence it has on these matters," she added.

"But Britain and its partners continue to ignore these calls."

The United States and European Union also imposed a round of their own sanctions in March.

Western intelligence agencies have assessed with "high confidence" that FSB officers poisoned Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok last year.

The dissident was flown to Germany for treatment but defiantly returned home in January, only to be arrested and sent to a penal colony.

'Shocking violation'

The latest sanctions are "sending a clear message that any use of chemical weapons by the Russian state violates international law", said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

He reiterated Western calls for a "transparent criminal investigation" into the poisoning.

"We urge Russia to declare its full stock of Novichok nerve agents," Raab added, saying there should be no impunity for the use of chemical weapons.

"Navalny's poisoning was a shocking violation of international norms against the use of chemical weapons and was part of an ongoing campaign to silence voices of dissent in Russia," US Office of Foreign Assets Control Director Andrea Gacki said in a statement.

"We regret that the Russian authorities have failed to investigate and credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon against Mr. Navalny on Russia's territory," said the US State Department statement.

"We call on Russia to comply fully with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), including its obligations to declare and dismantle its chemical weapons programme," it said.

Those newly targeted by Britain and the United States include alleged FSB operatives Alexey Alexandrov, Vladimir Panyaev and Ivan Osipov.

The trans-Atlantic allies claim the trio were all present in Tomsk, Russia, at the time of Navalny's poisoning there and were "key figures" in the attempted assassination.

Four other high-ranking officials -- including a major-general, a general and a colonel in the FSB -- were hit with the sanctions.

And Washington sanctioned Artur Zhirov and Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who were not on the UK blacklist.

The United States also targeted Russia's State Institute for Experimental Military Medicine and the FSB Criminalistics Institute, which it said many of the suspects in the poisoning were involved with to various degrees.

The new sanctions further erode ties between Moscow and the West following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, which led to a host of Western sanctions on Russia.

London's relations with Moscow have been dire since the 2006 radiation poisoning death in the British capital of former spy Alexander Litvinenko.

He blamed Putin for his death in a posthumous message.

Relations worsened after the 2018 attempted murder by Novichok of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England.

That prompted tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats in both capitals.

Russia hit out at Western capitals following the last round of punitive measures announced in March, warning its foes "not to play with fire".

'Completely absurd'

Navalny's imprisonment and the Kremlin's crackdown on dissent have been viewed unfavourably in Central Asia.

A Moscow court on June 9 designated Navalny's regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) as "extremist", barring them from working in Russia.

Prosecutors in April had requested that Navalny's organisations be labeled "extremist", saying the group was plotting an uprising with support from the West.

The charges and the court's decision are "completely absurd", said Arat Narmanbetov, a retired Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) officer who lives in Almaty, in June.

After its unsuccessful attempt to poison Navalny, the Kremlin now is pursuing his organisations that fight corruption in the country, Narmanbetov said.

The Prosecutor-General's move was not unexpected, said Kuanysh Satayev, a Shymkent-based civil society activist, also in June.

"They are tightening the screws in Russia -- they classified the opposition media outlet Meduza... as a foreign agent; they squeezed a project created by Vedomosti journalists out of the media space; they poisoned Navalny, then tried him [in court], and now his supporters are accused of extremism," he said.

These actions are representative of Russian authorities' opposition to dissent in any form, and it has become more severe than a year ago, Satayev said.

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