US President Joe Biden’s administration is preparing to impose sanctions on Russia for the poisoning and imprisonment of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, CNN reported Monday.
Citing two administration officials, CNN wrote that the United States will coordinate with the European Union to determine what the sanctions will entail and their exact timing.
According to one official, a potential option is an executive order that would trigger sanctions on Russia for repeated attacks on US democracy, including the SolarWinds cybersecurity hack and placing bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan, CNN wrote.
The sanctions would be Biden’s first on Russia, and would be a marked departure from his predecessor Donald Trump’s approach to dealing with Moscow.
Trump was often accused of taking a soft line towards Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, particularly during their 2018 summit in Helsinki when he backed Putin’s claim that Moscow didn’t interfere in the 2016 US election — despite American intelligence agencies pointing to the contrary.
The European Union approved sanctions on four senior Russian officials earlier Monday, as UN human rights experts called earlier Monday for an international probe into Navalny’s poisoning and his immediate release.
The EU sanctions are on four justice and law enforcement officers involved in Navalny’s detention. The four are the first individuals to be targeted under the EU’s new human rights sanctions regime, which came into effect in December. They will be banned from travelling to the EU and any assets held there will be frozen.
Meanwhile, Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, and Irene Khan, the top expert on freedom of opinion and expression, insisted on the need to ensure accountability for Navalny’s “sinister poisoning.”
They demanded his “immediate release” from a Russian penal colony, where he was transferred last week from a Moscow prison.
Navalny was jailed last month after returning to Moscow from Germany, where the 44-year-old had spent months recovering from a poisoning with a banned nerve agent he blames on Putin. The Kremlin denies it was behind the attack.
The imprisoning of Putin’s best-known opponent sparked nationwide protests that saw thousands of demonstrators detained and triggered calls in the West for Navalny’s release.
Russia on Friday condemned US strikes on Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria, demanding that Washington respect the country’s territorial integrity.
“We strongly condemn such actions and call for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to be unconditionally respected,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.
Russia has been a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime throughout the Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests, and Moscow’s military intervention in 2015 helped turn the tide of the war.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, for his part, said Russia wanted to know Washington’s plans in Syria and suggested that the United States had no plans to ever leave the country.
“Lately we’ve been hearing various information from various sources — so far we cannot confirm it and would like to ask the Americans directly,” Lavrov told reporters.
“Allegedly they are taking a decision to never leave Syria at all … up to the point of destroying this country.”
He said the Russian and US militaries were in touch over Syria but stressed it was important for the two countries’ political teams to be in contact.
“It is very important for us to understand the United States’ strategic line on the ground and in the region as a whole,” Lavrov said.
He also complained that the Russian military had been notified just four or five minutes before the US struck the targets on Thursday.
“This sort of warning — when strikes are already underway — gives (us) nothing,” Lavrov said.
Zakharova reiterated Russia’s long-standing position that Moscow rejected any attempts to turn Syria into “an arena to settle geopolitical scores”.
In its first military action against Iran-linked groups since Joe Biden became US president five weeks ago, the Pentagon said it had carried out air strikes on Thursday at a Syria-Iraq border control point used by Iran-backed groups.
The operation killed at least 22 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Russia said Saturday its scientists had detected the first case of transmission of the H5N8 strain of avian flu to humans and had alerted the World Health Organization.
“Information about the world’s first case of transmission of the avian flu (H5N8) to humans has already been sent to the World Health Organization,” the head of Russia’s health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, Anna Popova, said in televised remarks.
The highly contagious strain is lethal for birds but has never before been reported to have spread to humans.
Popova said that scientists at Russia’s Vektor laboratory had isolated genetic material of the strain from seven workers of a poultry farm in southern Russia, where an outbreak was recorded among the birds in December.
The workers did not suffer any serious health consequences, she added.
Popova praised “the important scientific discovery,” saying “time will tell” if the virus can further mutate.
“The discovery of these mutations when the virus has not still acquired an ability to transmit from human to human gives us all, the entire world, time to prepare for possible mutations and react in an adequate and timely fashion,” Popova said.
Located in Koltsovo outside the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, the Vektor State Virology and Biotechnology Center has developed one of Russia’s several coronavirus vaccines.
In the Soviet era the top-secret lab conducted secret biological weapons research and still stockpiles viruses ranging from Ebola to smallpox.
A wave of airstrikes by government ally Russia killed at least 21 Islamic State group jihadists in the Syrian desert over the past 24 hours, a monitor said Saturday.
The 21 were killed in at least 130 airstrikes “carried out over the past 24 hours by the Russian air force targeting the Islamic State group” in a vast area stretching from the central province of Homs to the border with Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The raids, which continued into Saturday, follow a series of IS attacks Friday on government and allied forces that killed at least eight members of a pro-Damascus militia, the Britain-based monitor said.
More than half of the slain jihadists were killed in strikes on the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, near the Iraqi frontier, according to the Observatory.
Russian raids in the desert region generally “target small groupings of IS militants as well as their vehicles”, said Rami Abdul Rahman, who heads the Observatory.
“It is a difficult operation for the Russians because there are no fixed positions for IS fighters who are always on the move,” he told AFP.
In recent months, the vast desert, known in Arabic as the Badia, has been the scene of increasingly frequent fighting between the jihadists and government forces backed by Russian airpower.
The region provides a “safe haven” for jihadists planning attacks on government forces and other rivals, the United Nations said in a report published this month.
IS overran large parts of Syria and Iraq and proclaimed a cross-border “caliphate” in 2014 before multiple offensives in the two countries led to its territorial defeat.
The jihadists continue to launch attacks, mostly in the Badia.
IS retains some 10,000 active fighters in Iraq and Syria, although the majority are reported to be in Iraq, the UN says.
Since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, more than 387,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes.
Europe’s rights court told Russia on Wednesday to release jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny out of concern for his life, but Moscow swiftly rejected the call.
Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken opponent, was arrested and jailed upon returning to Russia last month following months of treatment in Germany for a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.
His jailing sparked the largest anti-government demonstrations in years and a new crisis in Russia’s ties with the West, whose leaders are demanding the anti-corruption campaigner be set free.
Navalny, 44, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for his release on January 20, just days after his arrest at a Moscow airport, saying his life was in danger if he remained in custody.
The Strasbourg-based court said Wednesday it had upheld that request and told Moscow to release Navalny “with immediate effect”.
It said that the ruling was taken with “regard to the nature and extent of risk to the applicant’s life”.
Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, a rights body of which the ECHR is a part. Member states are obliged to enforce ECHR decisions and in the past Russia has done so, including in cases involving Navalny.
But shortly after the court made its decision public, Russia’s justice ministry said its demands were “unreasonable and unlawful” and there were no legal grounds to release Navalny.
Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko told the Interfax news agency that the ECHR demands represented “clear and gross interference” in the activities of Russia’s justice system.
According to consitutional changes introduced in Russia last year, decisions enforced by international treaties may not be executed if they contradict Russia’s basic law.
– Back in court on Saturday – Navalny is being held in a Moscow detention centre after a court ruled earlier this month to convert a suspended sentence for fraud he was handed in 2014 to nearly three years in jail over alleged violations of parole terms.
The ECHR had in 2017 ruled that the decision in that case was “arbitrary” and ordered Russia to pay compensation to Navalny and his brother Oleg, who served jail time.
Navalny will be back in court on Saturday to appeal his jailing in that case and in another trial where he is facing charges of defamation for calling a World War II veteran and others who appeared in pro-Kremlin video “traitors”.
The prosecution has asked the court to fine Navalny 950,000 rubles ($13,000/10,600 euros) in the defamation case.
In his complaint to the ECHR, Navalny argued that the Russian government could not provide “sufficient safeguards” for his life and health while he is in custody.
Navalny fell violently ill on a flight over Siberia last August and was airlifted to Berlin for treatment. Western scientists later concluded that he was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve toxin, Novichok.
While Navalny, whose investigations into the lavish lifestyles of Russia’s elite have infuriated many in power, says Putin ordered the attack, the Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement.
Navalny’s allies on Wednesday insisted that Russia must continue to follow the ECHR’s decisions.
“This must happen, it simply cannot be otherwise given that the European Convention (on Human Rights) is part of Russian legislation,” his lawyer Olga Mikhailova told AFP.
“Russia has always complied with such decisions and will carry it out now,” Ivan Zhdanov, a key Navalny aide and lawyer by training, wrote on Telegram.
The head of Navalny’s regional network, Leonid Volkov, said the decision is “binding” for Russia under its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe.
He said that non-compliance could lead to Russia’s exclusion from the council and to “numerous and far-reaching consequences”, such as the rupture of a number of international agreements.
Other Council of Europe members have refused to enforce the court’s rulings, including Turkey which has rejected calls by the court to release a Kurdish political leader and a civil society figure accused of involvement in a 2016 coup attempt.
Ukraine has banned coronavirus vaccines produced in bitter rival Russia despite struggles to launch its vaccination campaign.
A resolution passed by the government on February 8 and posted on its website Wednesday banned the registration of vaccines from “aggressor states”, a designation Ukraine has applied to Russia since 2015.
Ukraine’s pro-Western leadership has repeatedly rejected calls from pro-Moscow politicians to approve Russia’s Sputnik V jab, denouncing the vaccine as a geopolitical tool.
Ukraine has been fighting separatists backed by Russia in its Donetsk and Lugansk regions since 2014 following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
The ban on Russian vaccines came despite criticism of President Volodymyr Zelensky for failing to source Western-made jabs. Not a single dose of any vaccine has yet to arrive in the ex-Soviet country.
Zelensky said this week that Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, would begin the first phase of the vaccination campaign later this month.
The country of some 40 million is awaiting delivery of eight million doses promised under the United Nations’ Covax programme and up to five million doses of the Chinese CoronaVac jab.
It has also secured 12 million doses of vaccines developed by AstraZeneca and Novavax, but that is still not enough to meet the country’s needs.
On Wednesday Ukraine said it launched an investigation into the country’s purchasing of coronavirus vaccines, highlighting the country’s struggle to end systemic graft.
Sputnik V has meanwhile been rolled out in the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
Ukraine has recorded more than 1.2 million coronavirus cases and more than 24,000 deaths.
Russia on Friday expelled diplomats from three European countries for taking part in protests in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, after the European Union said ties with Moscow had hit a new low.
With EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Moscow for a rare visit, Russia said it had declared diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden persona non grata for participating in “illegal protests” on January 23 in support of Navalny.
The West has fiercely condemned Navalny’s arrest in mid-January, a crackdown on mass demonstrations by his supporters, and a court ruling on Tuesday to jail the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner for nearly three years.
Moscow announced the expulsions just hours after Borrell met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss ties, with the unspecified number of diplomats “ordered to leave Russia in the near future”.
The foreign ministry did not provide details of how they had been involved in the protests, saying only that Russia expects foreign diplomats to “strictly follow the norms of international law”.
Russia has bristled at Western backing for Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, accusing Europe and the United States of interfering in its domestic affairs.
“Our relationship is indeed in a difficult moment,” Borrell told Lavrov during the talks, adding that the relationship is “under severe strain and the Navalny case is a low point”.
The two men said there were hopes for cooperation in some areas, including on the coronavirus pandemic, but the announcement of the expulsions was unlikely to help ease tensions.
In a statement on Friday, Borrell said he had learned of the decision to expel three European diplomats in his meeting with Lavrov.
Borrell “strongly condemned this decision and rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the action as “not justified”, while French President Emmanuel Macron “condemned” the decision.
Sweden’s foreign ministry said the decision was “completely unfounded” and warned that it reserved the right “to an appropriate response”, while Poland said it could lead to the “further deepening of the crisis in bilateral relations”.
Borrell’s visit was the first to Russia by a senior EU envoy since 2017, following years of deteriorating relations sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Navalny back in court
Ties have further worsened in recent months, after three European labs concluded that Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-designed nerve agent in an attack in Siberia in August.
He blames Putin for the poisoning, a charge the Kremlin denies.
Navalny was flown to Germany to recover from the poisoning then arrested at a Moscow airport when he returned to Russia in mid-January.
He was accused of violating the parole conditions of a 2014 suspended sentence on fraud charges and on Tuesday jailed for two years and eight months.
He was back in court on Friday on separate charges of defaming a World War II veteran, which could see him jailed for an additional two years.
The hearing was adjourned to Friday, February 12.
The trained lawyer is accused of describing people who appeared in a pro-Kremlin video — including the 95-year-old veteran — as “the shame of the country” and “traitors” in a June tweet.
In court Navalny and his lawyers said the case was politically motivated and a pretext to silence him.
‘Truth is on my side’
“It is clear to everyone that the truth is on my side,” he said, standing in a glass cage for defendants in the Moscow courtroom.
Borrell’s visit drew criticism from some European capitals worried Moscow would spin it as evidence Brussels is keen to return to business as usual, with some in Europe calling for new sanctions on Russia.
The Kremlin on Friday also lashed out against what it called “aggressive and unconstructive rhetoric” from the United States this week.
“We’ve already said that we will not heed patronising statements of this sort,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
President Joe Biden on Thursday said the US will no longer be “rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions” and his officials said they would take action against Moscow over Navalny and for other “malign” behaviour.
More than 1,400 protesters were detained by Russian authorities during rallies supporting Alexei Navalny, a civil monitoring group said Wednesday after the Kremlin’s most prominent critic was jailed for nearly three years amid international condemnation.
The court’s decision Tuesday to turn a 2014 suspended sentence into real jail time will see the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner — who accuses Moscow of poisoning him last year — serve a lengthy prison term.
Britain, France, Germany, the United States and the European Union denounced the ruling and called for his immediate release, as Moscow accused the West of interfering in its affairs.
By early Wednesday, 1,408 people had been detained across Russian cities — mostly in Moscow and Saint Petersberg — the civil monitoring group OVD-Info said. Many were detained before Navalny’s sentence.
Navalny’s supporters had earlier called for more demonstrations against the decision after thousands joined nationwide protests against his arrest over the last two weekends.
The case is presenting one of the most serious challenges to the Kremlin in years, with some in the West calling for new sanctions against Russia.
Judge Natalya Repnikova ordered a suspended three-and-a-half-year sentence Navalny received on fraud charges in 2014 to be changed to time in a penal colony, an AFP journalist at the courthouse said.
He was accused of violating parole conditions by refusing to check in with prison officials and was arrested when he flew back to Moscow on January 17 from Germany, where he spent months recovering from a poisoning.
Navalny said it was impossible to make the appointments while abroad, but the judge said he had skipped meetings prior to the poisoning.
– ‘Poisoner of underpants’ – Navalny had spent time under house arrest after the 2014 conviction — which was denounced by the European Court of Human Rights — and Repnikova said that would count as time served.
His lawyer Olga Mikhailova said he would now serve around two years and eight months in prison.
His legal team plan to appeal, she added, with Navalny expected to stay in detention in Moscow during that process.
His Anti-Corruption Fund immediately called for a protest in central Moscow.
Several hundred of his supporters marched through the streets and AFP journalists saw police in riot gear detaining dozens across the city centre.
Videos released by local media showed officers hitting protesters with batons and chasing them through the streets.
In a fiery courtroom speech ahead of the ruling, Navalny accused Putin of trying to intimidate his critics.
“They are putting one person behind bars to scare millions,” he said.
And he mocked the Russian leader over allegations the Novichok nerve agent used to poison him had been placed in his underwear, telling the court that Putin “will go down in history as a poisoner of underpants”.
– ‘Pure cowardice’ – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for Navalny’s release, warning Washington and its allies would “hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens.”
French President Emmanuel Macron also called for his release, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel labelling the decision “far removed from any rule of law” and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling it “pure cowardice”.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, due to visit Moscow later this week, said it “runs counter to Russia’s international commitments on rule of law and fundamental freedoms”.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the Western reaction as “disconnected from reality”, adding: “There is no need to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.”
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities over the last two weekends to call for Navalny’s release, prompting a massive police clampdown.
“Under this regime, life is getting harder and harder, we have no future… no one has a future. It will only get worse,” Alexander, a 27-year-old engineer, told AFP near Red Square.
– Exposing corruption – While he has never held elected office, Navalny has made a name for himself with anti-graft investigations exposing the wealthy lifestyles of Russia’s elite.
Two days after he was placed in pre-trial custody last month, his team released an investigation into an opulent seaside property Navalny claims was given to Putin through a billion-dollar scheme financed by close associates who head state companies.
The probe was published alongside a YouTube video report, now viewed more than 100 million times.
Putin denied owning the property. Last week a billionaire businessman close to the Russian leader, Arkady Rotenberg, said he was the owner and was turning it into a hotel.
Russia described calls by Western countries to free Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced to nearly three years in prison on Tuesday, as “disconnected from reality”.
“There is no need to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was cited by Russian news agencies as saying, adding that “appeals by Western colleagues” were “disconnected from reality”.
A Moscow court on Tuesday granted a prosecutors’ request for Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to serve prison time for violating the terms of his parole.
Judge Natalya Repnikova ordered a suspended three-and-a-half-year sentence Navalny received in 2014 to be changed to time in a penal colony, an AFP journalist at the courthouse said.
.Repnikova said time Navalny previously spent under house arrest in the sentence would count as time served, and, according to his team, that would mean at least two-and-a-half years in prison now.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK) immediately called for supporters to protest in central Moscow.
“We’re going to the centre of Moscow right now,” it wrote on Twitter, urging supporters to join them.
The 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner was detained on January 17 when he returned to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning in August that he blames on President Vladimir Putin.
He was charged with violating the terms of his parole under the 2014 suspended sentence on fraud charges, because he did not check in with the prison service while in Germany.
The European Court of Human Rights in 2017 condemned the ruling in the fraud case as “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
During Tuesday’s hearing Navalny said the case was meant “to intimidate a huge number of people”.
“They are putting one person behind bars to scare millions,” he said.
Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is 91.6 percent effective against symptomatic Covid-19, according to results published Tuesday that independent experts said allayed transparency concerns over the jab, which Moscow is already rolling out.
Sputnik V — named after the Soviet-era satellite — was approved in Russia months before results from its final-stage clinical trials were published, leading to scepticism from experts.
But the new analysis of data from 20,000 Phase 3 trial participants, published in The Lancet medical journal, suggests that the two-dose vaccination offers more than 90 percent efficacy against symptomatic Covid-19.
“The development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticised for unseemly haste, corner-cutting, and an absence of transparency,” said a joint independent commentary by Ian Jones of the University of Reading and Polly Roy of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated, which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of Covid-19.”
The results suggest Sputnik V is among the top-performing vaccines, along with the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs that also reported more than 90 percent efficacy.
Pre-empting the results of the phase 3 trials, Russia has already launched a mass inoculation campaign for citizens 18 and older.
– ‘Checkmate’ –
Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which was part of the Sputnik V development, said the vaccine is already registered in 16 countries.
“There are no arguments left for critics of this vaccine, the article in The Lancet is a checkmate,” he said, adding that it was affordable and easy to store.
Sputnik V has the advantage of being able to be kept at normal refrigerator temperatures instead of the conditions far below freezing required for some other vaccines.
According to the Lancet report, 14,964 participants in the vaccine group and 4,902 in the placebo group were given two jabs 21 days apart in the September-to-November trial.
Those taking part were tested for Covid-19 at enrolment, again when they had the second dose, and then after that if they reported symptoms.
From the second dose, 16 cases of symptomatic Covid-19 were confirmed in the vaccine group and 62 cases were reported in the placebo group, giving an efficacy equivalent to 91.6 percent.
The authors said however that efficacy was only calculated on symptomatic cases and said more research would be needed to assess how it affects asymptomatic disease.
– ‘No serious adverse events’ –
The Lancet report said that during the trial “no serious adverse events were deemed to be associated with vaccination”.
Analysis of some 2,000 participants older than 60 also suggested the vaccine was similarly effective and well tolerated in this group.
The trial is ongoing and plans to recruit a total of 40,000 people.
Sputnik V uses different disarmed strains of the adenovirus, a virus that causes the common cold, as vectors to deliver the vaccine dose.
In this respect it is similar to the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, which reported efficacy of about 60 percent when two full jabs were given in its trials.
But Sputnik V uses two different adenovirus strains — one for each jab. Developers said this minimises the risk of the immune system developing resistance to the initial vector, which may help create a more powerful response.
Alexander Edwards, an associate professor in Biomedical Technology at the University of Reading, said the trial might help provide evidence to this theory of immune response.
In January, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany had offered Russia support in developing Sputnik V, after Russian authorities said they had applied for registration in the European Union.
The European Commission spokesman for health, Stefan De Keersmaecker, said Tuesday that a key selection criteria for the EU was that the company have production capacity within the bloc.
“The aim is to make sure that we can deliver supplies very quickly, I.E. the day on which the vaccine gets the green light,” he told a press conference.