The new round of sanctions introduced by the EU against Russia over the poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny have three key aspects. They target individual people and organizations, rather than entire sectors of the economy; they don’t follow the European Parliament’s suggestion of targeting the subjects of Navalny’s anti-corruption investigations; and they don’t distinguish between the siloviki (security services) hawks and in-system liberals.

The first aspect repeats the EU’s reaction in similar situations. Major actions such as the annexation of Crimea or war in Ukraine’s Donbas region cannot happen without the participation of most of the country’s state apparatus, so in those cases, sanctions targeting entire sections are appropriate. But in single crimes, the EU adheres to a different principle: it searches for the specific individuals and organizations responsible. Since there are not yet any suspects in the legal sense of the word, and it is impossible to investigate a crime that took place deep inside Russian territory, the blame is being put on people and organizations within whose area of responsibility it occurred.

The sanctions list, therefore, includes the Russian State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology, where the Novichok nerve agent used to poison Navalny was likely produced. In contrast, it does not mention the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, although judging by multiple public statements made on the issue, canceling the pipeline project is seen as the most effective punishment by Western politicians and journalists. 

But the EU executive bodies must for now be governed not by the principle of inflicting the greatest harm possible on Russia, but by a more legalistic principle of trying to find and punish those responsible. It helps, of course, that the dividing line between inflicting harm on Russia and self-harm is not now entirely clear, and it’s somewhat risky to start feeling for it by trial and error at a time when European economies have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

The EU employed this same legalistic approach when looking for figures to include on the Navalny sanctions list. Unlike in the poisonings of Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK, or the shooting down of Flight MH17, no suspects have been identified by the West, and it’s impossible for Western agencies to conduct their own investigations into events on Russian territory. A European Parliament resolution last month proposed adopting sanctions against individuals previously targeted by Navalny’s investigations into corruption, but the EU apparently decided against this: effectively allowing Navalny to write the list himself would be a major responsibility to hand over to a foreigner, even a Putin foe who currently enjoys widespread sympathy. It would also ignore the presumption of innocence and the basic legal principle of a direct link between guilt and punishment.

Despite the victim’s accusation that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was the chief instigator behind the attack on Navalny’s life, the sanctions list avoids burning bridges by including any top officials, with the exception of Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), who has in any case been sanctioned since 2014 over Crimea and Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu escaped the list, with two of his deputies included instead.

The new list also includes two figures from the presidential administration responsible for domestic policy: First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko, and Andrei Yarin, head of the presidential domestic policy directorate. This is a rare case—if not the first case—of a prominent in-system liberal being included on a sanctions list: Kiriyenko was prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, back when Russia was considered to be a promising fledgling democracy.

The official reasoning behind the sanctions list is clear. Kiriyenko and Yarin are responsible for domestic policy, including relations with the opposition, so the decision to eliminate the best-known opposition politician must surely have been run by them first. For precisely the same reason, the list also includes Putin’s envoy to Siberia, Sergei Menyailo: the poisoning took place in Siberia, so he is being held to account for it. Menyailo, however, comes from a security services background, and as the former governor of Sevastopol in annexed Crimea was also already under sanctions.

Yet the decision to include Kiriyenko is at odds with the expertise that EU leaders ought to have at their disposal. It’s unlikely that any Russia-watcher or Moscow-based ambassador would have suggested to them that Kiriyenko was behind the decision to poison Navalny. On the contrary, most would say that Kiriyenko is unlikely to have had anything to do with it, and that he prefers other methods: chiefly political spin and propaganda. 

It was precisely for these methods that he was appointed by the Kremlin to his position. Laying some of the blame on Kiriyenko also ignores nuances such as the differences between Kiriyenko, a liberal technocrat, and the harsher Yarin, who can broadly be considered a representative of the siloviki within the domestic policy bloc. 

Kiriyenko’s inclusion on the list could have come about either due to a lack of understanding among EU leaders of Russian domestic reality (which they should be having explained to them by analysts and ambassadors), or as the result of a decision to ignore that reality. In the latter case, the EU is making it clear that it will not differentiate between liberals and siloviki within Russia’s corridors of power if the end result is in any case the use of force—especially since there are no public differences of opinion on that matter between the technocrats and the hawks, while the work of the propaganda machine to cover it up is only too plain to see.

If this is a signal, then it’s a simple one: it’s not enough to have liberal ideas and reformist intentions and oppose an all-out confrontation with the West; those ideas and intentions must be noticeable in the actions of the Russian state.

It can’t be very nice for globally minded technocrats to find themselves on the same list as those who advocated for the use of force, and who benefit from the standoff between Russia and the West. It should rouse them to take action against (or, at the very least, to noticeably oppose) the Russian state’s most abhorrent deeds, and those most unacceptable to the West. They must take action, at least within their area of responsibility, not only to implement their own vision for the country, but also now for the sake of their own reputation and well-being.

  • Alexander Baunov