March 5, 2021 | Insight

Biden Must Do More to Deter Russian Aggression and Uphold Global Norms

March 5, 2021 | Insight

Biden Must Do More to Deter Russian Aggression and Uphold Global Norms

The United States on Tuesday joined its European allies in imposing sanctions in response to Moscow’s August 2020 chemical weapons (CW) attack against, and subsequent imprisonment of, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. These designations mark a good first step in holding Moscow accountable and restoring transatlantic unity, but the United States and Europe must do more to protect transatlantic interests and values.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned seven officials for targeting Navalny, including Aleksandr Bortnikov, head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which used a nerve agent to poison Navalny; Sergei Kiriyenko and Andrei Yarin, senior Russian officials responsible for domestic policy; Pavel Popov and Aleksei Krivoruchko, deputy defense ministers who oversee military research and armaments, respectively; prosecutor general Igor Krasnov, whose office prosecuted Navalny on trumped-up charges following his arrest in January, resulting in an almost three-year prison sentence; and Alexander Kalashnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, which provided the legal pretext for Navalny’s arrest and prosecution.

Under a new legal regime authorizing sanctions against human rights violators, the European Union on Tuesday also sanctioned Krasnov and Kalashnikov, as well as two senior Russian officials already under U.S. sanctions: Aleksandr Bastrykin, chairman of Russia’s Investigative Committee, which launched a politically motivated fraud investigation into Navalny in December 2020, and National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov, whose forces violently suppressed protesters and journalists during January 2021 pro-Navalny demonstrations.

The European Union had sanctioned Bortnikov, Kiriyenko, Yarin, Popov, and Krivoruchko back in October. By designating those individuals on Tuesday and coordinating its additional designations with the European Union, the Biden administration sought to demonstrate a renewed U.S. focus on transatlantic unity and cooperation. Those attributes, often sorely lacking under the previous administration, will help signal resolve to the Kremlin.

In addition to the Treasury designations, the U.S. Commerce Department on Tuesday added 14 entities located in Russia, Switzerland, and Germany to its Entity List for supporting Russia’s CW activities, supplementing a similar August 2020 U.S. measure taken against five Russian CW-related entities. At the same time, the State Department designated those five entities plus one more, the 27th Military Scientific Center, under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which targets the Russian defense and intelligence sectors.

Furthermore, under an executive order targeting WMD proliferators and their supporters, the State Department also designated three of those entities – GosNIIOKhT, the 33rd TsNIII, and the 27th Scientific Center – along with the FSB, Russia’s military intelligence directorate, or GRU, and two GRU officers responsible for Moscow’s 2018 Novichok attack in England. Washington had already designated those officers and the FSB and GRU under CAATSA Section 231 and an executive order target election interference, respectively. Strangely, neither Commerce nor State sanctioned two other Russian CW research institutes – GNII VM and Scientific Center Signal – identified by open-source research.

Per an overdue legal obligation under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination (CBW) Act, the State Department also tightened restrictions on national security-sensitive exports to Russia, originally imposed following Moscow’s 2018 Skripal attack.

All of these sanctions build on the Biden administration’s consistent rhetorical condemnations of Moscow’s treatment of Navalny and broader record of human rights abuses and chemical weapons use. The sanctions are especially long-overdue after President Trump’s silence and inaction risked emboldening Moscow and undermining efforts to restore the international norm of zero CW use.

Unless Moscow verifiably renounces its CW program within the 90 days following the new sanctions, the CBW Act legally obligates the Biden administration to impose additional, harsher sanctions. Yet Washington will be hard-pressed to identify untapped CBW Act measures that enjoy transatlantic support and inflict significant pain without risking economic blowback.

That makes it even more imperative for the United States and Europe to terminate Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. While Moscow is highly unlikely to relinquish its CW program, strong transatlantic action on the pipeline may make the Kremlin think twice before using CW again.

As long as Russia refuses to dismantle its chemical weapons program and obstructs efforts to hold Syria accountable for its CW use, Washington should look for opportunities to work with allies and partners to improve law enforcement and military capacity to counter CW use, whether in assassinations or on the battlefield.

The administration can start by using next week’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) meeting to build a coalition against Russian CW use, modeled on the July 2020 OPCW Executive Council decision on Syria. The OPCW should give Russia 90 days to provide details on the Navalny poisoning, including where the chemical weapons were developed, produced, stockpiled, and operationally stored, and to declare and eventually destroy all existing chemical weapons. If Russia does not comply, the OPCW member states should revoke Moscow’s voting rights.

Washington and Brussels should also levy additional sanctions against individuals responsible for persecuting Navalny and other Russian activists, protesters, or journalists. Targets should include the FSB officers involved in the Navalny attack and the law enforcement personnel and judges who unjustly detained him and other Russian activists, protesters, and journalists. The European Union should also amend its new human rights sanctions regime to target corruption, in line with the U.S. Global Magnitsky sanctions. Washington and Brussels should then issue joint sanctions against corrupt Russian officials, including those exposed by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Meanwhile, while the Biden administration and the European Union have so far proven unwilling to heed Navalny’s call to target major Russian oligarchs, the allies should at least enforce their existing sanctions by targeting individuals and entities that facilitate sanctions evasion. For example, Navalny’s organization alleges that Bortnikov’s son Denis “acts as a ‘wallet’ for his father’s ill-gotten gains to hide their true beneficiary and avoid existing sanctions.”

The new sanctions are an important first step toward fulfilling Biden’s pledge to stand up to Russian aggression and reinvigorate the transatlantic alliance. But those sanctions are not enough. Additional transatlantic action can help the United States and its allies deter further CW use and uphold global norms against CW use and violations of human rights.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where John Hardie is research manager and a Russia research associate. They also contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Anthony, John, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Anthony on Twitter @NatSecAnthony. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Military and Political Power Nonproliferation Russia Sanctions and Illicit Finance