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The US is almost out of options to make Russia pay for Navalny's death

Tom Porter   

The US is almost out of options to make Russia pay for Navalny's death
  • Joe Biden had threatened Russia with severe consequences if dissident Alexey Navalny died.
  • But the US appears to have limited options available.

When President Joe Biden addressed the sudden death of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny last week, he had no doubt where the blame lay.

"What has happened to Navalny is even more proof of Putin's brutality. No one should be fooled," Biden told reporters Friday.

But where Biden sounded less certain, was on how the Russian president should pay for the alleged crime.

Russia's prison agency announced the sudden death of Navalny in prison on Friday. According to the Kremlin, the dissident felt unwell after taking a walk and almost immediately lost consciousness.

In the briefing, Biden was asked about his 2021 remark that Russia would suffer "devastating" consequences if Navalny were to die in custody.

Biden said most of the penalties available to the US had been used in response to Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but the US was "contemplating" what else might be done.

When asked by a New York Times reporter on the fringes of The Munich Security Conference this weekend what more the US could do to punish Russia over the Navalny death, a senior US official simply shrugged.

US sanctions fail to undermine Russia

The US has already imposed sweeping sanctions on Putin, his inner circle, and the Russian economy over the Ukraine invasion.

But Russia has managed to sidestep some of the worst effects of the sanctions.

For instance, the US has sought to cut off Russia's export of oil and gas, a trade that is at the heart of the Russian economy. But Russia has increased oil exports to other countries to make up the shortfall to the West, including India and China.

The US has also sought to prevent Russia from obtaining high-tech components it uses to build weapons, including cruise missiles. But an illicit trade in the parts has sprung up, allowing them to be imported via neighboring states and networks of shell companies.

Putin has placed the Russian economy on a war footing, with 6% of GDP spent on arms and ammunition production, meaning that US attempts to seriously constrict Russian weapons production have failed. Russia is now producing more ammo at a time when Ukraine's supply is running low.

Biden on Friday pointed to the impact of the Ukraine invasion on Russia and said the country had already suffered "a hell of a lot of consequences" since he made his pledge in 2021.

Western weapons have proven vital for Ukraine in reversing Russian successes in the early weeks of the conflict.

But that could soon change. The future of US aid to Ukraine is under threat, with congressional Republicans, egged on by Donald Trump, opposing a new bill that includes $60 billion in assistance to Ukraine.

The prospect of more sanctions

Despite their limited impact, could more sanctions be the answer?

The US Treasury says that Russia's economy has shrunk by 5% since the Ukraine invasion, and it is suffering from underinvestment, low productivity growth, and labor shortages.

The decision to reorient the economy toward weapons and ammunition production has resulted in a "long-term decline in living standards," it said.

A further round of sanctions targeting banks and other institutions that help Russia evade trade bans has reportedly led to some Chinese businesses distancing themselves from Russia. It matters because China has been an economic lifeline to Russia during the war.

And there remain options open to the US and other countries in the West if they choose to punish Russia even further.

Some European leaders want the US to hand $300 billion in frozen Russian central bank assets to Ukraine, and the plan is reportedly backed by some in the Biden administration.

However, concerns remain over the legality of the move and whether it could lead to a breakdown of global financial networks.

Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, told The Observer one remaining option would be to sanction the children of members of the Kremlin elite who are still living in luxury in the West.

"Everybody loves her children more than anything else," she said. "For Russian officials to see their children lose their good life in the West would be quite powerful."

But the new measures open to the West feel incremental and would likely act as little deterrent to Putin in his bid to inflict terror on domestic critics as the Russian presidential race approaches.

Navanly's death "is a deliberate snub to the West, showing that Putin is utterly unbothered by our sanctions and disapproval," Edward Lucas, a UK security expert, told Times Radio.


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