Thousands of Russians are expected to protest Sunday in dozens of cities for the second consecutive week, demanding the release of opposition leader Alexei Navalny from jail and an end to the corruption of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies. On Friday, Navalny’s associates delivered to the U.S. government a list of specific cronies whom Navalny personally identified as ripe targets for sanctions.
In a letter to President Biden, the Russian Anti-Corruption Foundation, which Navalny founded, called on the administration to expand the already extensive U.S. sanctions on Russian officials to include a range of Russian oligarchs and officials who it says enable and assist Putin’s abuse of power and his network of corrupt enterprises. Many of those enterprises reportedly target dissidents or interfere in Western societies. Among 35 names, Navalny personally selected eight as prime targets, the foundation’s executive director, Vladimir Ashurkov, told me in an interview.
While Navalny received medical treatment in Germany after being poisoned with the chemical agent Novichok, likely by Russian intelligence agents, he and his friends anticipated that he might be arrested upon returning to Russia. They discussed ways the free world could exert pressure on Putin.
“Just a few days before Alexei boarded the plane, we had a talk with him and we discussed that the top eight people on this list should be the priority,” Ashurkov said. “These are the most blatant offenders, and we should first focus on them.”
Navalny’s prime targets were chosen because they are close to Putin and also have significant exposure to Western sanctions because of their international wealth, Ashurkov said. Probably the best known of them is Roman Abramovich, the Russian-Israeli billionaire who owns the Chelsea F.C. football club and has been closely tied to Putin for decades. The list also includes Andrey Kostin and Denis Bortnikov, the leaders of the large Russian bank VTB, which is alleged to facilitate Putin’s embezzlement and other mischief. Bortnikov is also the son of the director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the agency the U.S. government believes is responsible for Navalny’s poisoning.
Also at the top of Navalny’s list are Russian Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko, who allegedly hindered Navalny’s efforts to seek medical attention in Germany after he was poisoned, and Vladimir Solovyev, a prominent Russian journalist and propagandist who has targeted Navalny publicly. The longer list of 35 sanctions targets includes a mix of oligarchs, human rights violators and people reported to be directly complicit in the poisoning crime.
“What can Western governments do to influence Russia and put pressure on it?” Ashurkov asked. “Navalny for years has advocated for individual sanctions against perpetrators of human rights abuses and corruption, and we’ve worked on this precise list of who these targets should be.”
Ashurkov also delivered this list to several congressional leaders and spoke Friday about it with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), one of the original authors of the Magnitsky sanctions law that the U.S. government has used against human rights abusers all over the world. Cardin told me he intends to follow up on Navalny’s list of Russian sanctions targets but declined to comment on any specific targets.
“We are going to do everything we can to make it clear that if Mr. Navalny is not released without harm from prison, there are going to be consequences,” Cardin said. “Our main focus is to make it clear to Mr. Putin that not only are our eyes on what he’s doing, but the international community is watching.”
A bipartisan group of senators has already introduced legislation that would authorize sanctions on Russian officials specifically involved in Navalny’s poisoning. The Navalny list is broader than what the proposed legislation calls for and includes Russian officials who are much more wealthy and powerful than the low-level operatives allegedly involved in the attempt on Navalny’s life.
Also on Friday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking him to consider new sanctions against Russian officials for corruption and human rights abuses as well as those who were involved in Navalny’s poisoning.
“Moving forward swiftly with these sanctions will send a strong message that such behavior will not be tolerated by the Biden administration, and will make clear to the Russian Federation and the international community that the United States will abide by its commitments and U.S. law,” Menendez wrote. “It will also send an important message of solidarity to our allies in Europe.”
On Wednesday, Blinken told reporters that Navalny’s voice “is the voice of many, many Russians and it should be heard, not muzzled.” Such expressions of concern are positive but must be combined with action to be effective. The Russian people's struggle for a government that isn’t run by authoritarian criminals is their fight, not ours. But the least we can do is not allow those criminals go completely unpunished.