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Leonid Volkov, Alexei Navalny’s chief of staff, in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Feb. 4.The Globe and Mail

The chief of staff to jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny is urging fresh Western sanctions without delay to counter what he calls Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “act of blackmail” in threatening Ukraine.

The United States has warned Russia of heavier sanctions, including measures that target Mr. Putin directly if he invades Ukraine. Moscow has massed an estimated 130,000 troops near Ukraine and the White House warns an attack could come “any day.”

But Leonid Volkov, who is also the political director for Team Navalny, said the West should act now, before a conflict, to gain leverage.

He said sanctions that more closely target Mr. Putin’s assets, held by Russian oligarchs, would give Western countries bargaining power they could use to convince Moscow to unwind its massive troop buildup.

“Read your own penal codes. Blackmail is a crime and so is threatening someone with death,” Mr. Volkov said in an interview in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where he is based now. Mr. Putin has asked the West to guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the NATO military alliance and that the defence bloc will not expand further east.

“He’s blackmailing the West,” Mr. Volkov said, with the threat being a “bloodbath in Ukraine.” The Washington Post reported this week that President Joe Biden’s administration warned U.S. lawmakers and European partners that if Moscow mounts a full invasion, 50,000 civilians could be killed.

“The only way to deal with Putin is punish him. Go after his money. Freeze the assets of his friends and himself. After you have won some leverage, you can link partial revocation of sanctions to an actual withdrawal of troops, concessions on human rights, release of political prisoners and so on.”

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Mr. Navalny, 45, one of Mr. Putin’s most prominent opponents, who created an organization to rally against political corruption in Russia, was jailed in 2021 for parole violations in a decision the West has condemned as politically motivated. This detention came months after he was poisoned with a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent – an attack he blamed on Mr. Putin.

Mr. Volkov accused Mr. Putin of manufacturing the Ukraine crisis to distract from serious economic problems in Russia and a COVID-19 death toll that is among the highest in the world.

“Even the best propaganda machine in the world needs fuel to run on,” he said.

“So for three months now, Russian domestic audiences have been entertained by what is going on with Ukraine rather than what is going on in their fridges,” he said.

“Putin is very important now. Biden is talking to him,” and so are the leaders of Britain, Germany and France, Mr. Volkov said.

He remains pessimistic about the outcome of the Ukraine crisis, saying “Mr. Putin is good at tactics but very bad at strategy” and has engineered a standoff from which he cannot back away.

Mr. Putin’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea was well received in Russia because there were virtually no casualties, Mr. Volkov said.

But “any military operation in Ukraine, even a restricted one, would carry enormous costs. And Russian public opinion is not ready for it,” he said.

Mr. Putin can’t retreat without some concessions from NATO and so this creates an explosive situation where a Russian tank that accidentally strays into Ukrainian territory can spark a war.

“He’s playing with matches in a room that he himself has covered in gasoline.”

Mr. Navalny is jailed at Penal Colony No. 2 near Moscow. A court last year banned his Anti-Corruption Foundation as an “extremist group” after it organized a series of widespread protests against Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule. Navalny supporters have since regrouped outside Russia and continued their leader’s work.

Mr. Navalny’s organization has overhauled its fundraising tactics since being banned at home. Russian authorities block financial transactions when domestic supporters try to donate but Mr. Volkov said Team Navalny has refashioned its crowdfunding to reach out to the Russian diaspora abroad as well as well as sympathetic non-Russians.

He said when Mr. Navalny’s organization operated inside Russia it would turn away even a “penny of foreign funding” but since it’s been expelled “why should we care now?”

Mr. Volkov said Russian authorities still try to intimidate him. A few weeks ago, a letter from Russia turned up at his residential mailbox. It contained stickers bearing sayings such as “Isn’t it time to go home?” The underlying message was clear though, he said: “We know where you live.”

Mr. Navalny’s top aide bristled when asked whether there are any signs of resistance left in Russia. He said Mr. Putin’s heavy-handed response to early 2021 protests calling for Mr. Navalny’s release have discouraged open dissent. “I hate this idea that opposition in Russia is demolished. No. What Putin has demolished is the opposition’s ability to be visible.”

He said the Kremlin’s response to mass rallies last year is an indication of how vulnerable Mr. Putin feels. “Putin does this not because he is strong but because he is weak.”

Late last year before it was shut down by Russian authorities, Memorial, one of the country’s oldest human-rights groups, estimated there were now 420 political prisoners in the country – a figure it said recalled Soviet-era levels of repression.

International lawyer John Boscariol, head of McCarthy Tétrault’s trade and investment group in Toronto, said pre-emptive sanctions targeting Mr. Putin, the oligarchs around him and their assets could be more attractive for Western allies, including Canada, if this standoff persists and shows signs of damaging Ukraine’s economy.

“The ongoing threat itself imposes a cost on Ukraine and surrounding region, which could eventually lead Canada and allies to impose co-ordinated sanctions even though no invasion has occurred.”

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