Biden Issues His First Russia Sanctions—But Not His Last
Tuesday’s sanctions over Alexei Navalny are just the opening move in a bid to punish recent Russian actions.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. and EU issue Russia sanctions over Alexei Navalny, rockets hit Iraqi airbase housing U.S. troops, and hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls have been released after a mass kidnapping.
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Biden Sanctions Russia Over Navalny Poisoning
The United States imposed sanctions Tuesday on a number of Russian individuals and entities linked to the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The move was made in concert with the European Union, which issued separate asset freezes and travel bans on four Russians.
“Tuesday’s announcement was significant in that it was the first—and likely not the last—round of sanctions imposed on Russian officials by the Biden administration.” Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon said. “The move didn’t come as a surprise, though: Sanctions are mandatory under the chemical and biological weapons act, something that the Trump administration chose to ignore in its last days in office.”
The sanctions, coordinated across three U.S. government departments, mostly targeted high-ranking officials—including the head of Russia’s federal security services, the FSB, as well as Russia’s prosecutor general. Two deputy defense ministers were also sanctioned.
Playing with fire? The Russian Foreign Ministry has brushed off the impact of the moves, while threatening a reciprocal response. “Irrespective of America’s ‘sanctions addiction,’ we will continue to consistently and decisively defend our national interests, rebuffing any aggression. We urge our colleagues not to play with fire,” Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said on Wednesday.
No reset. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, an unnamed senior U.S. official laid out what amounts Biden’s strategy (although a review of Russia policy is reportedly ongoing). “We are not seeking to escalate, we are not seeking to reset. We are seeking stability and predictability and areas of constructive work with Russia, where it is in our interest to do that,” the official said.
Cracking the foundation? Vladimir Ashurkov, the head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, has welcomed any moves that could undermine confidence in the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There are probably 5,000 or 10,000 people, the pillars of the regime, the senior officials, the business cronies, etc., that are the foundation. If they are removed, it will all crumble,” Ashurkov told Mackinnon in February. “And if the top hundred people of this 5,000 would be sanctioned, I think the others will take notice because they are quite reliant on the West—they have assets here, property, their families reside here.”
More coming. According to White House officials, more U.S. sanctions targeting Russians involved in the SolarWinds hack, the alleged bounty program on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and Russian interference in the 2020 election are expected soon.
What We’re Following Today
Iraqi base attacked. Ten rockets targeted Iraq’s Al Asad military base housing U.S. and other coalition forces in the early hours of this morning, according to an initial report by a U.S. military spokesman. No information on casualty numbers or suspected assailants is yet available, although Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are suspected of retaliating in the wake of a U.S. strike on their positions along the Iraq-Syria border last week. The same base was attacked by Iranian missiles in January 2020 in retaliation for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.
Biden nominees face hearings. Two of President Joe Biden’s key foreign policy appointees face Senate confirmation hearings today: Katherine Tai for U.S. trade representative and Wendy Sherman for the post of deputy secretary of state.
The two officials face diverging paths to confirmation. As Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh reported in February, Tai is expected to sail through. “It’s difficult—no, let’s be frank, it’s impossible—to find anyone who will say anything bad about Katherine Tai,” Hirsh wrote.
Sherman faces a tougher hearing, given her role as the lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration, and is expected to come in for criticism from Republican senators. On Tuesday, FP’s Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch reported on the challenges facing Sherman in her quest to become the first woman to serve as the State Department’s No. 2.
Nigerian schoolgirls returned. The 279 Nigerian girls abducted from their boarding school in northwest Zamfara state last Friday have been returned safely. Officials have denied paying a ransom to the armed kidnappers, who held the girls in the forest for four days, even though one of the abducted girls said that they were only released once a ransom had been paid. On Friday, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari urged state officials to “review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles,” and followed up on Tuesday by ordering a mass military deployment to Zamfara state.
Keep an Eye On
EU emergency approvals. The European Union is considering a shift to its vaccine approval process as member states turn to Russia and China to overcome delays in distribution. The European Commission said it is considering an emergency approvals process, similar to ones in place in the United Kingdom and the United States, in order to speed up vaccine rollouts across the bloc. Under current rules, member states are allowed to individually approve vaccines for emergency use, but in doing so they relieve pharmaceutical companies of any legal liabilities.
The HDP’s future in doubt. Turkish leaders have once again called for the dissolution of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the country’s third largest political party, alleging links to the proscribed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). “Our people have lost hope in this party. All 83 million are demanding that this party be politically shut at the ballots and legally within the framework of the constitutional order,” Cahit Ozkan, a deputy parliamentary group chairman for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said on Tuesday. Speaking earlier in the day, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli was less diplomatic. “The HDP’s closure is urgent, vital, and mandatory,” Bahceli said. “From head to toe, the HDP is in the swamp of corruption and terror.”
Many observers contend that Erdogan is simply seeking to create an electoral advantage for himself by weakening a party that could cut into the AKP’s vote share. Two former HDP leaders remain behind bars on terrorism-related charges and many local party officials were detained this week following the deaths of 13 Turkish citizens in Iraq. Erdogan’s administration has also seized municipalities the HDP won control of in 2019 local elections by replacing elected mayors under investigation for alleged terrorist links with government appointees.
Odds and Ends
After a rough year for humanity, one Japanese billionaire wants to help you leave planet Earth—if only for a week.
Yusaku Maezawa, the founder of online fashion retailer Zozotown, is now taking applications from members of the public to join him on a trip around the moon, all expenses paid. Maezawa has already bought all the available seats, nine in all, on a SpaceX mission named dearMoon, due for takeoff in 2023.
Lucky applicants will hope Maezawa keeps his word. Last year, he canceled a search for a “life partner” to join him on the moon flight, citing “mixed feelings” about the stunt.
That’s it for today.