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Biden must sanction 'the cronies and wallets of Putin,' says key ally of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/31/2021 Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his allies are pushing the Biden administration to sanction a band of wealthy oligarchs and Kremlin operatives closely linked to Vladimir Putin.  

Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, sent the Biden administration a list of 35 Russian individuals who he says "play key roles in aiding and abetting Putin" – urging the U.S. to bar them from accessing American financial institutions and from visiting the U.S.

The new push for US action came as thousands of Russians participated in mass protests across Russia on Sunday to demand Navalny's release. More than 3,300 people were detained by police, according to a monitoring group.

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In a video call with several reporters on Saturday, Ashurkov said there is "no silver bullet" to ensure Navalny's release and change Putin's aggressive tactics toward the West. But, he said, sanctioning Putin's inner circle will be far more effective than previous steps taken by the US and its allies to deter the Russian strongman's tactics. 

a group of people wearing costumes: Alexei Navalny is surrounded by journalists inside the plane prior to his flight to Moscow in the Airport Berlin Brandenburg in Schoenefeld, near Berlin, Germany, Jan. 17, 2021. © Mstyslav Chernov, AP Alexei Navalny is surrounded by journalists inside the plane prior to his flight to Moscow in the Airport Berlin Brandenburg in Schoenefeld, near Berlin, Germany, Jan. 17, 2021.

"The West must sanction the decision-makers who have made it national policy to rig elections, steal from the budget, and poison people," Ashurkov wrote in an op-ed published Saturday in USA TODAY. "It must also sanction the people who hold their money." 

Navalny was arrested on Jan. 17 after returning to Russia from Germany, where doctors helped him recover from a nerve-agent poisoning. Navalny says the Kremlin carried out that attempted assassination; Putin's spokesman has denied the Kremlin's involvement. 

Shortly after Navalny's detention, his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which works to expose self-dealing inside the Russian government, recently released a viral video alleging that Putin has a $1.3 billion palace near the Black Sea. 

Ashurkov said the U.S. and Europe have mostly targeted more minor Russian players who don't hold assets outside of Russia and don't travel to the West, so the sanctions have not been very effective. 

In Saturday's video call, Ashurkov said the 35 individuals he named fall into three categories. The first are "the cronies and wallets of Putin," wealthy Russians who he says hold money for Putin and his closest associates. 


Video: U.S. imposes sanctions on Russia over opposition leader Alexei Navalny's poisoning (Yahoo! News)

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Among those on the list sent to Biden: Roman Abramovich a billionaire who owns stakes in a giant steel company and the U.K.'s Chelsea soccer team, according to Forbes, which also says he owns the world's second-largest yacht; and Denis Bortnikov, chairman of Russia's second-largest bank.

Putin's "cronies have deeply permeated Western markets, financial systems, and political establishments. Their overarching aim is to weaken the West and make it dysfunctional," Ashurkov wrote in the USA TODAY op-ed. 

Ashurkov said the second category of names include Russian government officials involved in suppressing political and civic freedoms in Russia, and in third category are operatives specifically involved in harassing Navalny and his anti-corruption organization.

"Everyone understands that as long as Putin’s kleptocratic regime controls Russia, the people of Russia have no future," Ashurkov wrote in the USA TODAY op-ed. 

Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for President Joe Biden's national security council, said the White House had received the letter. She noted that Biden urged Putin to release Navalny in their first phone call since Biden's inauguration.  

“President Biden raised his concerns about the attempt on Mr. Navalny’s life directly with President Putin when they spoke last week," Horne said in an email to USA TODAY. "We urge Russia to fully cooperate with the international community’s investigation into the poisoning of (Alexei) Navalny and credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon on its soil.”

On Wednesday, Biden's secretary of state, Antony Blinken, declined to say what the U.S. would do if Navalny was harmed. But he said the U.S. is very concerned about his safety and took a jab at Putin.

“It remains striking to me how concerned, and maybe even scared, the Russian government seems to be of one man, Mr. Navalany,” Blinken said.

On Sunday, Blinken blasted Russia's response to the pro-Navalny protests.

"The U.S. condemns the persistent use of harsh tactics against peaceful protesters and journalists by Russian authorities for a second week straight," the secretary of state wrote on Twitter. "We renew our call for Russia to release those detained for exercising their human rights, including Aleksey Navalny."

The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected Blinken's remarks as a “crude interference in Russia's internal affairs" and accused Washington of trying to destabilize the situation in the country by backing the protests.

Thousands of Russians also demonstrated last weekend amid frigid temperatures; security forces arrested an estimated 4,000 people who participated in those protests.

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden must sanction 'the cronies and wallets of Putin,' says key ally of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

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