What’s Navalny’s sanctions strategy?

With Alexei Navalny’s return into the mailed fist of FSIN, his ally Vladimir Ashurkov yesterday released the top eight names of an apparently rather longer list of people Navalny identified as his sanctions ‘wish list’ before he flew to Berlin. It is worth looking at this list in a little more detail to get a sense of what Navalny’s sanctions strategy may be. This shortlist is (copied with descriptions from Ashurkov’s Facebook post):

Roman Abramovich – one of the key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy, with significant ties/assets in the West.

Denis Bortnikov – Deputy President and Chairman of VTB Bank Management Board. He is the son of Alexander Bortnikov, FSB director and a key ally of Vladimir Putin, and he has been acting as a “wallet” for his father’s ill-gotten gains.

Andrey Kostin – President and Chairman of the Management Board of state-owned VTB Bank, a key facilitator of corrupt money flows related to the functioning of the Russian government and security services.

Mikhail Murashko – Minister of Healthcare of Russia, responsible for covering up Alexey’s poisoning and hindering efforts to evacuate him to Germany for medical treatment.

Dmitry Patrushev – Minister of Agriculture of Russia. He is the son of Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Security Council of Russia and a key ally of Vladimir Putin, and he has been acting as a “wallet” for his father’s ill-gotten gains.

Igor Shuvalov – Chairman of the State Development Corporation VEB.RF, a former senior government official, who has been instrumental in creating the system of state corruption, which took over the Russian political and legislative institutions.

Vladimir Solovyev – a key Russian state media personality, one of the primary mouthpieces of authoritarian propaganda.

Alisher Usmanov – one of the key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy, with significant ties/assets in the West.

This is an interestingly mixed collection, from which three main lines of attack emerge, which I could categorise as:

His attackers: With people such as FSB director Alexander Bortnikov already being under sanctions, instead two of these look directly connected with the attempted poisoning. Murashko, obviously, considering the treatment he faced from the Russian medical system (as opposed to the individual first responders and doctors who saved his life, probably at the expense of their careers), but also Solovyev, a particularly toxic individual even by the standards of Russian TV ‘shock jock’ style presenters. Solovyev – who called Navalny “Nazi scum” on TV last year, perhaps relishing the chance for revenge after Navalny’s 2017 revelations of his opulent lifestyle and hypocrisies – was a particularly outspoken cheerleader for the state’s cover-up after the poisoning. Given that the precedent to hit those peddling state lies especially enthusiastically has already been established with Russia Today director Dmitry Kiselev, Navalny presumably is happy to build on this. One wonders if people like RT’s Margarita Simonyan may be on the long list. The message is presumably that if you actively take part in hostile actions against Navalny, you become a target.

‘Wallets and Facilitators’: Others are those Navalny presents – often having produced video exposes to this end – as front men, bag carriers and agents for other individuals already under sanction. In other words, they are sanctions-busters. Kostin, Bortnikov Jr and Patrushev Jr  are in these terms not so much important for who they are, but who they serve or represent. The message, I assume, is proxies are as guilty as those they represent.

Kleptocrats: It is certainly not the case that every rich Russia is rich because Putin made him rich, or stays rich because he is an eager Putin crony, ally or agent. Nonetheless, Navalny has targeted Abramovich and Usmanov – perhaps as well known in the UK as anything else for owning Chelsea and, until 2018, having a major stake in Arsenal – as two symbolic leaders of the pack. I’m surprised, to be honest, that such even closer figures as Rosneft’s Gor Sechin aren’t here, but then again it may be that to Navalny – not without reason – the Sechins of this world are really nothing but Putin’s proxies, whereas Abramovich and Usmanov choose to collaborate with the Kremlin. Honestly I was wondering whether Shuvalov should go in the previous category or this one, but I suspect he really fits here, as someone who chose his path. It’s hard to tell for certain, but I presume the message is: if you deliberately choose to dine with the devil, you can expect to be exorcised.

Of course, only when the full list becomes known will we have the data to make a better assessment of the kind of strategy Navalny may have in mind. What is interesting is that all three of these lines of attack seem well-chosen to be able to fit UK, US and EU sanctions regimes, which allow measures to be brought to bear when it would punish human rights abuses or encourage better behaviour (the first), to strike at sanctions-busters (the second) and to deliver a rebuke to those prospering from a regime engaged in breaches of human rights (the third).

The key question, of course, is one of political will. It is all very well Navalny giving Western governments a list of the people he believes deserves to be sanctioned. But will they listen and think it worth the while doing anything about it, or just stick to the expressions of “grave concern” which the Kremlin is, by now, eminently used to ignoring.

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