Joe Biden issues new sanctions against Russia in response to Alexei Navalny death

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The US has sanctioned more than 500 Russian targets in response to the death of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The measures, announced by US President Joe Biden on Friday, are aimed at punishing human rights violators and slowing Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s war machine.

Biden said the package, the largest issued since the war began, “will ensure Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home”.

He added it would target “individuals connected to Navalny’s imprisonment”, as well as Russia’s financial sector, defence industry and procurement networks.

The full list includes measures targeting industries that provide supplies, services and raw materials to Russia’s war effort, as well as the commodities exports whose revenue helps fund the conflict.

Sovcomflot, Russia’s state-owned shipping company, was also added to the sanctions list as part of Washington’s escalating efforts to shore up enforcement of price-capping rules that seek to keep exported Russian crude to under $60 per barrel.

Russia has circumvented the cap by using its own vessels and a so-called “ghost fleet” of vessels owned via opaque jurisdictions. These ships ostensibly do no business with countries enforcing the price cap, and can therefore breach it with little consequence.

By sanctioning Russia-linked tanker operators, Washington hopes to make buyers of the country’s oil fear engaging with the Moscow-controlled fleet — forcing more oil to be shipped in vessels that do observe the cap.

According to the Kyiv School of Economics, the discount on the Russian-produced Urals grade of crude since the US started tightening this enforcement action has widened from $13 per barrel in September-October to around $18 per barrel in December.

The US also sanctioned several shipping companies involved in transferring munitions from Iran and North Korea, which have proved crucial in helping Russia turn the tide on the battlefield against an outgunned Ukrainian army.

The sweeping package comes a week after Navalny, Putin’s most outspoken domestic critic, died in a remote Arctic penal colony. Western leaders were quick to suggest the Russian government was to blame for his death.

“Make no mistake: Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death,” Biden said.

The US sanctioned three prison officials it said were involved in Navalny’s death, including two in charge of the penal colony, and Valery Boyarinev, deputy head of Russia’s penitentiary service.

Putin promoted Boyarinev, who gave orders to limit the amount Navalny could spend on food, to “colonel-general” in a decree published three days after the activist’s death.

Moscow has been hit by a succession of wide-ranging sanctions and export controls from allies of Ukraine since the start of the war. According to the Kyiv School of Economics, Russian goods exports in 2023 were down by 29 per cent compared to 2022.

The Bank of Finland has also found evidence that while Russia has coped with being cut off from western tech companies by using Chinese suppliers, the restrictions have driven price rises of more than 70 per cent for some sensitive war-related technologies.

The latest US package comes as other western allies have also stepped up efforts to hamper Russia’s war effort. In response to Navalny’s death, on Wednesday the UK imposed an asset freeze and travel ban on six prison officers at the penal colony where Navalny died.

On the same day, the EU agreed sanctions on several foreign companies including from India and China that are accused of aiding Russia’s military campaign.

Targets of the new US measures include the National Payment Card System Joint Stock Company (NSPK), which underpins Russia’s Mir payment system. This will further limit Russians’ ability to use Mir cards, designed as an alternative to Visa and Mastercard, outside Russia.

The US also sanctioned coal producer Suek and steelmaker Mechel, two of the country’s top 50 companies by revenue, in an effort to further limit Russia’s revenue from commodities exports.

Further restrictions targeting companies involved in fields such as oil exploration are aimed at preventing Russia from developing new sites and tapping further potential streams of export revenue in the future.

Some notorious contributors to the war effort are also subject to new measures, including the Alabuga Special Economic Zone in Tatarstan, a site where Russia is assembling the Geran-2 attack drone. The Albatross reconnaissance drone is also made at the same site.

Anna Luzhanskaya has been sanctioned for her role as the notional owner of Fly Bridge, a company that was part of a smuggling ring exposed by the Financial Times for exporting French microchips to a Russian electronic warfare manufacturer.

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