EU foreign ministers are expected on February 22 to approve fresh sanctions on Russia over the jailing of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and a crackdown on his allies.
Top diplomats from the EU’s 27 members gathering in Brussels are likely to use targeted measures against Russian individuals and institutions, such as asset freezes and visa bans, under the bloc’s newly created sanctions instrument to punish human rights violators.
The step follows weeks of internal EU debate since Navalny was detained last month upon his returned from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he and supporters say was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In October 2020, the EU placed six Russian officials on a blacklist over the poisoning of Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok.
Ahead of the meeting, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged his EU counterparts to give the green light for the preparation of additional sanctions on Russia.
“I am in favor of ordering the preparation of additional sanctions, of listings of specific persons,” Maas said at his arrival for the talks in Brussels, adding, “at the same time we need to talk about how to keep up a constructive dialogue with Russia, even as relations certainly have reached a low.”
Over the weekend, a Moscow court upheld a 2 1/2 year prison sentence imposed on Navalny earlier in February for a parole violation related to a previous embezzlement conviction. In another case, the Kremlin critic was fined for allegedly insulting a World War II veteran. Both trials were decried as politically motivated.
The move to further sanction Russia comes nearly two weeks after a controversial visit to Moscow by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that coincided with the expulsion of three EU diplomats from Russia.
Borrell noted on February 21 that Russia continues to ignore a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) demanding Navalny be set free.
EU member states, led by Poland and the Baltic countries, are calling for a hard line against Russia, including additional economic sanctions.
On the eve of the meeting in Brussels, two of Navalny’s closest allies met in the Belgian capital with eight EU foreign ministers and several EU ambassadors.
One of the allies, Leonid Volkov, told AFP they “talked about targeted personal sanctions against Putin’s closest allies and people who are guilty of major human rights violations.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis organized the meeting.
Another group of EU members, including influential France and Germany, are calling for a more targeted approach and ruling out economic sanctions.
Unanimity among all the bloc’s members is normally required to impose sanctions.
Ahead of the Brussels meeting, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said he expects the EU to adopt new sanctions against Russia over Navalny’s case.
The Austrian diplomat told Germany’s Welt Am Sonntag newspaper that he expects “a broad majority of support” for targeted sanctions among EU members, but added the sanctions “have to be politically smart and legally watertight.”
A decision to impose fresh measures against Russia will only result in the foreign ministers instructing the EU’s diplomatic service to draw up a list of sanctions with individuals who are responsible for the conviction of Navalny and possibly also for the assassination attempt against him.
The United States, EU, Britain, and Canada have already hit Russia with a number of sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.