Russia has warned that it will retaliate against any American sanctions imposed over the imprisonment of anti-corruption and pro-democracy campaigner Alexei Navalny, who was jailed for almost three years on Tuesday.
Moscow is facing international outrage over its treatment of Navalny, who has long been harassed by law enforcement and Kremlin loyalists for his campaign against President Vladimir Putin‘s dictatorship and the corruption rampant among Russia’s rulers and their oligarch allies.
Navalny returned to Russia in January after several months in Germany, where he was recuperating from an assassination attempt by Russia’s FSB secret service. He was arrested on his return, accused—and this week convicted—of violating his parole from a previous money laundering sentence he says was politically motivated.
His arrest prompted a wave of protests in Russia, leading to thousands of arrests. Hundreds were arrested for protesting outside the Moscow court where Navalny was sentenced this week.
President Joe Biden‘s administration has spoken out against Navalny’s arrest and imprisonment. Some lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, are pushing for the White House to impose fresh sanctions on the Kremlin in response.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned that any such action would be met with retaliation. “Taking well-considered and not aggressive action is always more useful and effective,” Zakharova told the Soloviev Live YouTube channel, according to the state-run Tass news agency.
“Retaliation must certainly follow,” she said. “If no symmetric or proportionate action is taken there where the United States cross the red lines, it will feel absolute impunity.”
Russia is already under broad American sanctions in response to its invasion of eastern Ukraine, its meddling in foreign democratic elections and its covert assassination attempts against dissidents abroad.
Moscow has tried to frame such measures as Russophobic and baseless. “Didn’t they promise sanctions last week, a month ago, six months ago?” Zakharova asked when discussing potential action over Navalny.
“When I hear that, I recall every previous time they promised sanctions,” she said. “By the way, the excuses are entirely different. They do not need any. They will always find and invent them.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement on Tuesday calling on Moscow “to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Navalny, as well as the hundreds of other Russian citizens wrongfully detained in recent weeks for exercising their rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly.”
“Even as we work with Russia to advance U.S. interests, we will coordinate closely with our allies and partners to hold Russia accountable for failing to uphold the rights of its citizens,” Blinken added.
Although Navalny’s arrest and imprisonment have sparked big demonstrations, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday the saga would not affect national politics. The country is preparing for parliamentary elections in September, with Putin’s United Russia party keen to record—or rather engineer—a thumping win after a year of coronavirus turmoil.
“The political situation in the country is rather multifaceted,” Peskov told reporters, according to Tass. “The country prepares for parliamentary elections in September, a lot of different processes take place, new political parties form. This is a very multifaceted process, so it is unlikely that there will be any significant effect.”