Moscow has vehemently criticized the United States for imposing sanctions on Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and four other Russians accused by the United States of human rights abuses.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on December 21 that Russia considers the sanctions "illegal" and "unfriendly," while the Foreign Ministry called them "grotesque" and groundless.
The U.S. Treasury Department hit Kadyrov with financial and travel sanctions a day earlier under the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that aims to punish Russians alleged to be involved human rights violations, accusing him of torture and "extrajudicial killings."
Four other Russians added to the sanctions list under the law included Ayub Katayev, a security official the Treasury Department accused, along with Kadyrov, of "gross violations of internationally recognized human rights" in Chechnya.
"We consider these sanctions illegal, we consider them unfriendly, and we do not agree with them," said Peskov, who is President Vladimir Putin's chief spokesman.
He said it was "highly probable" that Moscow would adhere to "the principle of reciprocity" in its response, suggesting that Russia would accuse U.S. officials or citizens of rights violations and bar them from entering the country.
Asked what American the Kremlin might target for sanctions as the "mirror image" of Kadyrov, Peskov said, "There are few people like him."
Human rights groups say Kadyrov has used threats and abuses to maintain control over Chechnya, the site of two post-Soviet separatist wars and years of insurgent violence stemming from the conflicts since Putin appointed him to head the region in 2007.
On a conference call with reporters on December 20, a senior U.S. State Department official said that "one or more of Kadyrov's political opponents were killed at his direction."
In a statement about the new listings, Treasury Department sanctions office director John Smith said the United States "will continue to use the Magnitsky Act to aggressively target gross violators of human rights in Russia, including individuals responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, and other despicable acts."
The law is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested after blowing the whistle on what he said was the theft of $230 million from Russian state coffers through tax fraud.
He died in jail in December 2009, and relatives and rights activists said he had been tortured and denied medical care. A Council of Europe investigation concluded the conditions leading up to his death amounted to torture.
The Treasury Department identified Katayev as a law enforcement official in Chechnya and accused him of involvement in a campaign of abuse against gay and bisexual men in Chechnya over the past year.
The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta was the first to document evidence that police in Chechnya rounded up, tortured, and humiliated dozens people they considered to be gay. The report was later corroborated in part by RFE/RL as well as Human Rights Watch, which said the "anti-gay purge" lasted from late February until at least early April and that "it was ordered and conducted by officials in Chechnya."
Kadyrov and the Kremlin have denied the accusations.
Relations between Russia and the United States are badly strained by tension over issues including Russia's aggression in Ukraine, its role in the war in Syria, and what U.S. intelligence agencies say was an "influence campaign" of interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, and TASS