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US concludes Russia poisoned Navalny, joins EU in sanctions

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands inside a glass cell during a court hearing in Moscow on February 20, 2021. ©AFP

Washington (AFP) - The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials in a coordinated action with the European Union as US intelligence concluded that Moscow orchestrated the near fatal poisoning of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

In his first major action against Russia since taking office, President Joe Biden's administration said it was freezing any US assets and criminalizing transactions with seven senior Russians including the director of the FSB security service.

US intelligence assessed "with high confidence" that officers of the FSB, successor to the KGB, poisoned Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok on August 20, 2020, a US official told reporters.

Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment but defiantly returned in January, only to be arrested and then sent to a penal colony after spurring massive rallies through his allegations of corruption by Putin.

"The US 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," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

"We reiterate our call for the Russian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny," he said.

The announcement comes one day after EU member states approved a fresh round of sanctions over treatment of Navalny.The bloc had already in October targeted the FSB chief, Alexander Bortnikov, among others on the US list.

Officials newly targeted Tuesday by both the United States and European Union included Alexander Kalashnikov, the administrator of Russia's prisons.

The US Commerce Department said it was also blacklisting 14 companies or entities for export controls out of fear they could help Russia develop chemical weapons.

The Kremlin has denied responsibility over Navalny's ill health and on Tuesday asked Western powers what they would achieve through sanctions.

"The answer will be obvious: such a policy does not achieve its goals," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking with his Uzbek counterpart, warned of reprisals, saying that one rule of diplomacy "is the principle of reciprocity."

Hardening US stance

The Biden administration has vowed to work more closely with allies and to take a harder line than defeated president Donald Trump, who voiced admiration for Putin even though he signed off on some sanctions on Russia.

The Biden team has also made clear it is not attempting another "reset" in relations of the sort initially attempted by former president Barack Obama.

Biden at the same time quickly extended New START, the last major nuclear reduction treaty between the Cold War powers.

"We're not seeking to escalate, we're not seeking to reset; we are seeking stability and predictability and areas of constructive work with Russia where it's in our interest to do that," a senior official told reporters.

Officials said that the United States would in the coming weeks also roll out intelligence assessments on other points of concern with Russia.

The rows include allegations that Russia paid Taliban-linked militants bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan, and early indications that Moscow was behind the massive SolarWinds hack that devastated US agencies and businesses.

Navalny, 44, fell violently ill when he was taking a domestic flight. 

The doctors treating him in Germany said he had been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by Soviet researchers and which was also blamed in a 2018 attack in England against Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Navalny was sent to a penal colony east of the Russian capital after a judge ruled that, in going to Germany, he violated the terms of parole in a suspended sentence over a 2014 fraud case, which critics say was trumped up.

Navalny has persisted in needling Putin, releasing a viral video that purported to show a palatial Black Sea residence belonging to the president, who was forced to deny publicly that it was his.

The dissident has also mockingly said that the veteran Russian leader "will go down in history as a poisoner of underpants" -- where agents allegedly placed the Novichok.

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