WASHINGTON - The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions to punish Russia for what it described as Moscow's attempt to poison opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent last year, in President Joe Biden's most direct challenge yet to the Kremlin. The announcement of action against seven Russian officials and 14 entities made by senior Biden administration officials marked a sharp departure from former President Donald Trump's reluctance to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin. Navalny, 44, fell ill on a flight in Siberia in August and was airlifted to Germany, where doctors concluded he had been poisoned with a nerve agent. The Kremlin has denies it had a role in his illness and said it had seen no proof he was poisoned. Navalny was arrested in January on his return from Germany following treatment for poisoning with what many Western countries say was a military-grade nerve agent. He was jailed on Feb. 2 for parole violations on what he says were politically motivated charges, and sent to a penal colony on Monday. U.S. officials did not immediately name the people or entities targeted and it was not clear if the sanctions, which typically freeze assets under U.S. jurisdiction, would have more than a symbolic impact. Navalny, a critic and political opponent of Putin, was targeted for raising raise questions about Russian corruption and was the latest example of Russian efforts to silence dissent, the U.S. officials said. "Russia’s attempt to kill Mr. Navalny follows an alarming pattern of chemical weapons use by Russia," a senior U.S. official told reporters on a call, referring to the March 2018 poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England with a military-grade nerve agent. The officials said seven senior Russian government officials would face sanctions, such as asset freezes. In addition 14 entities associated with Russia's biological and chemical agent production, including 13 commercial parties - nine in Russia, three in Germany and one in Switzerland - and a Russian government research institute, were hit with punitive measures. The United States acted in concert with the European Union, which on Tuesday imposed largely symbolic sanctions on four senior Russian officials close to Putin, a move agreed by EU ministers last week in response to Navalny's jailing. The EU sanctions apply to Alexander Bastrykin, whose Investigative Committee handles major criminal probes and reports to Putin; Igor Krasnov, Russia's prosecutor-general since 2020; Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia's National Guard who threatened Navalny with violence in 2018; and Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the federal prison service. The EU sanctions fall short of calls by Navalny's supporters to punish wealthy businessmen around Putin known as oligarchs who travel regularly to the EU. Unlike Western sanctions imposed on Russia's economy in 2014 in response to its annexation of Crimea, travel bans and asset freezes have less impact, experts say, because state officials do not have funds in EU banks or travel to the EU. The U.S. officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, reiterated Biden's call for Russia to release Navalny. Further sanctions are likely as the United States assesses the Russian role in the massive SolarWinds cyber hack and allegations that Russia sought to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election and offered bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, the officials said. Biden has taken a tougher approach to Putin than Trump. "We expect this relationship to remain a challenge," said a U.S. official, saying Washington would work with Moscow when it served U.S. interests. "Given Russia’s conduct in recent months and years, there will also undoubtedly be adversarial elements." Before the U.S. announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would respond in kind to any new U.S. sanctions over Navalny, the Interfax news agency reported. The new sanctions against heads of law enforcement agencies is yet another an attempt to intervene into Russia's internal affairs, Interfax news agency quoted Russian lawmaker Vasily Piskarev as saying. "They (the U.S.) don't understand that these sanctions won't earn any result," Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of the upper house's international affairs committee, told Russia Today. REUTERS
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