Anti-corruption blogger, opposition candidate, and all-around Kremlin irritant Alexei Navalny is frequently accused by opponents of being a pawn of the U.S. government. After President Obama released a list yesterday of wealthy Russian insiders being sanctioned in the wake of the Crimea annexation, some Russians are joking that Navalny is really the one pulling the strings.
The leading vote-getters in the poll were a group of “biznesmeni” with close ties to Putin’s inner circle: Gennady Timchenko of the commodity trading firm Gunvor; construction magnates Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who may have been the biggest beneficiaries of the Winter Olympics; and Yuri Kovalchuk of Bank Rossiya, often referred to as the personal banker of Russia’s rulers.* Navalny also brought up these names in a New York Times op-ed the same day, titled, "How to Punish Putin."
Navalny and his readers got their wish. The very next day, those four individuals, along with Kovalchuk’s company, Bank Rossiya, were the very ones the Treasury Department singled out for sanctions, for “materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, a senior official of the Government of the Russian Federation.”
Another name discussed in Navalny’s blog post, Russian Railways Chairman and close Putin associate Vladimir Yakunin, is also facing sanctions as a political official. Fifteen senior Russian officials were also sanctioned.
Given that the op-ed and the sanctions list appeared only a few hours apart, it doesn't seem very likely that that Navalny's suggestions actually influenced the policy. The coincidence mostly underlines the fact that these were the most obvious targets available. A Treasury spokesperson told Slate by email that Navalny’s suggestions hadn’t played a role in the decision and that the department had "fashioned these sanctions to impose costs on individuals who wield influence in the Russian government and those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine."
It’s also worth noting that a few of the other recommendations for targets in Navalny's Times piece—“the oligarchs Roman A. Abramovich and Alisher B. Usmanov; and Igor I. Sechin and Aleksei B. Miller, the heads of Rosneft and Gazprom, respectively”—were notable by the absence from the final list.
But the overall strategy Navalny recommended in the Times, targeting Putin’s inner circle by “freezing the oligarchs’ financial assets and seizing their property,” is basically the one the White House has settled on.
Navalny, who was released pending appeal last summer amid widespread protests after being sentenced to five years in prison on seemingly trumped-up embezzlement charges, is currently under house arrest after being arrested at a rally in Moscow last month. His blog is also among the sites recently blocked on orders from Russia’s attorney general. All told, he's probably pretty satisfied today, though.
*Correction, March 21, 2014: This post originally misstated the name of commodity trading firm Gunvor.