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Russia warns west not to ‘play with fire’ with Navalny sanctions

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia has reacted angrily to the latest round of sanctions imposed on it over the poisoning and detention of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, saying the move was “absolutely unacceptable” and would have a destructive effect on the country’s already bad relations with the United States and the European Union.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on March 3, a day after Washington and the EU targeted senior Russian officials and entities over Navalny, that Moscow would respond to the sanctions in a way that best served its interests.

His comments came after Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the sanctions “a hostile move toward Russia” and warned the West not to “play with fire.”

During a visit to Ukraine, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, said the new EU sanctions showed the bloc was “totally committed” to promoting democracy and the rule of law.

“We are united in Europe in order to be very tough, very firm, in order to promote our values, to defend our interests,” he said.

Washington announced on March 2 that it was sanctioning seven senior Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, after a U.S. intelligence assessment concluded “with high confidence” that officers from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) were behind Navalny’s August poisoning.

The U.S. announcement came on the heels of European Union sanctions against four senior Russian officials — Aleksandr Kalashnikov, the federal prisons administration; Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee; Igor Krasnov, the prosecutor-general; and Viktor Zolotov, director of the National Guard.

The U.S. also sanctioned Kalashnikov and Krasnov as well as Sergei Kiriyenko, the first deputy chief of staff; Andrei Yarin, the chief of the Kremlin’s domestic policy directorate; FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov; Aleksei Krivoruchko, the deputy minister of defense responsible for armaments; and Pavel Popov, the deputy minister of defense responsible for research activities.

‘Powerful Message’

Jen Psaki, the Biden administration’s spokeswoman, said the U.S. wanted to coordinate the timing of the sanctions with the EU to “send a powerful message” to the Kremlin.

Peskov dismissed the accusations that the FSB was behind Navalny’s poisoning as a notion that was “outrageous” and played down the impact of the Western sanctions.

Peskov dismissed the accusations that the FSB was behind Navalny’s poisoning as a notion that was “outrageous.”

“Any such restrictions are absolutely unacceptable because they do serious harm to relations with the U.S. and the EU, relations which are already in a deplorable state,” the Kremlin spokesman said.

“They are nothing other than interference in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation,” he added.

Slamming what she called “the U.S.’s enthusiasm for sanctions,” Zakharova said Russia would “continue to consistently and resolutely uphold our national interests and rebuff any aggression.”

“We urge our colleagues not to play with fire.” the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman added.

She also accused the United States of “lecturing” others and of being counterproductive with its words and actions.

“Based on the principle of reciprocity, we will respond but not necessarily with symmetrical measures.” she said.

Navalny was detained in Moscow in January immediately upon returning from Germany, where he had recovered from what several Western labs determined was poisoning with a Novichok-type nerve agent that saw him fall ill on a flight in Siberia in August.

A Moscow court in February ruled that, while in Germany, he had violated the terms of parole from an older embezzlement case that is widely considered politically motivated. He was ultimately ordered to serve 2 1/2 years in prison.

Russia has denied involvement in the poisoning but Navalny claims the assassination attempt was ordered by President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, UN human rights experts on March 1 called for an international investigation into the poisoning of Navalny, Putin’s most vocal critic, saying evidence points to the “very likely involvement” of Russian government officials.

The EU had already imposed sanctions on Russia following the poisoning attack on Navalny last year. But former U.S. President Donald Trump let the incident slide without punitive action.