The US government has accused the Russian secret service of poisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalni, announcing the first sanctions against Russia since new US President Joe Biden took office on January 20.
The targets of the sanctions, which include the ban on travel to the United States and the freezing of assets abroad, are the authorities accused of plotting the prison of Navalni, detained upon his return to Russia after being treated for 150 days in Germany.
The most striking name affected is Viktor Zolotov, former bodyguard of Vladimir Putin and director of the National Guard, a praetorian unit created in 2016 by the president and seen by Russian analysts as a kind of insurance against possible scams. .
She reiterates the measures already taken by the European Union and the United Kingdom in October, after examinations showed that Navalni, then interned in Berlin, had been poisoned by the nerve agent of Soviet origin Novichok (beginner, in Russian).
He worked in August on cases against pro-Kremlin politicians in the city of Tomsk, Siberia. Subsequently, in his own investigation, Navalni said he discovered that the poison had been placed in his underwear at the hotel where he was staying.
European governments had previously suggested blaming the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the old KGB, but the United States, which carries the accusation, is directly setting a new standard.
He was previously seen last week, when Biden released a cautious Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report in which Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is accused of authorizing the brutal murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. in 2018.
In January, Navalni had returned to Moscow, only to be arrested for violating his probation in an old case in which he was charged with fraud – which he said is persecution.
His three-and-a-half-year sentence was resumed and he was taken to a penal colony to serve the remaining two years and eight months. The place is known to remember the conditions of the dreaded Soviet chains.
There have been huge protests across Russia, but the harsh crackdown, with more than 10,000 activists in prison, has removed traction from the movement in recent weeks. Putin denies the responsibility of the FSB in this matter.
In the second (1st), the European Union had broadened the scope of its own sanctions against Zolotov and three other authorities: the administrator of federal prisons, Alexander Kalashnikov, the head of the commission of inquiry, Alexander Bastrikin and the prosecutor. general, Igor Krasnov.
The United States has yet to announce action against three other people. As is usually the case in these cases, this is a warning burst, the second given by Biden since taking office against Russia.
It turns out that Putin and his relatives are not directly concerned. In practice, such sanctions only have a political impact, establishing what was already noticeable in Biden’s early moves in relation to Russia.
In the week following his inauguration, the American renewed, as Putin wanted, the last and most important strategic nuclear control agreement in force.
At the same time, he announced that he would study the Navalni case in depth and the episode in which Russian hackers are accused of infiltrating nine US government agencies and more than 100 companies in 2020.
The topics were discussed by the Democrat in a phone conversation with Putin. Delivering his first foreign policy speech on February 4, Biden took a long time to say that Russia would no longer act with impunity, suggesting that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had turned a blind eye.
It should be remembered that the Republican has always been accused of having been helped by the Kremlin, via virtual interference in the 2016 elections, which he and Putin deny.
For Biden, the pressure on Putin is convenient, as he takes on the role of badass in foreign policy and appeals to his European allies, who are always afraid of Moscow’s intentions. In this way, he reaffirms his willingness to strengthen the ties that were torn in the transatlantic relationship by Trump.
On the other hand, it differs from its predecessor and saves time to deal with the central issue of its diplomacy, the relationship with the rising power of China.
So far, Biden has only sent signs of strength by placing two groups of aircraft carriers for training in the South China Sea, disputed by Beijing, and created a group at the Pentagon to account for the risks. realities imposed on the United States by the Communist dictatorship. .
Since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, geopolitical response in line with the Kremlin’s vision that the neighboring country must be either an ally or neutral, as it separates its territory from NATO forces (military alliance Western), Putin has become a villain in Europe.
Defense spending for countries on NATO’s eastern periphery has increased and the alliance has strengthened its positions within it, even creating a small multinational air force to protect the Baltic states, the most vulnerable to possible Russian aggression.
The political crisis that threatens the dictatorship in Belarus since the fraudulent elections last August has resulted in a strengthening of the military link between Minsk and Moscow, and analysts believe it is likely to deepen further in the coming months. .
This demonstrates Putin’s will towards the fate presented to him by geography. Like Ukraine, Belarus is a buffer between Russia and Europe.
Following the absorption of Crimea, a predominantly Russian ethnic territory, the West is applying economic sanctions against Russia. Unlike actions against individuals, which usually do nothing in practice, the measures have had an impact on the Russian economy.
There is some debate about the magnitude of this effect. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) estimated that it cost, from 2014 to 2018, around 0.2 percentage point per year of growth in Russian GDP (gross domestic product).
The French bank BNP Paribas estimated last year a larger overall impact, of 8 points of GDP in six years, or about 100 billion dollars (540 billion reais) of losses for Russian companies.
The consequence of the credit restriction for companies in Putin’s country as well as for the big banks operating abroad is certain. These ties, according to a report by one of these institutions, Sberbank, have made it difficult to increase competitiveness and diversify the economy.
To complicate matters, Moscow’s export earnings depend on oil and natural gas, which have been hit hard by price fluctuations over the years and depreciation resulting from falling demand during the Covid pandemic. -19.
There are Western instruments here that concern the Kremlin, such as sanctions against European companies that are partners of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is almost ready and will increase the ability to send the product to Germany and other countries without going through troubled areas. —Ukraine and Belarus.
Despite the political complaints, so far the “realpolitik” has given the cards and the Germans have kept the deal.
For now, the Kremlin is shrugging its shoulders. Chancellor Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday, ahead of the US announcement and commenting on EU sanctions, that everything would receive an equal response. This is another truism, because it is the practice and the effects are just as harmless.
The crisis comes at a time when Putin is reaping the unusual laurels of a “soft power” offensive to supply Russian vaccine against the novel coronavirus Sputnik V, which has already been approved in 38 countries, including members of the Union European Union, Hungary and Slovakia.