EU refrains from Russia sanctions over Navalny arrest, for now

EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell speaks during a press conference following a meeting with EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs at the EU headquarters, in Brussels, Belgium, 25 January 2021. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS]

Despite calls from the Baltic countries, Poland, Italy and Romania, EU foreign ministers on Monday (25 January) decided to hold off from imposing fresh sanctions on Russian officials in response to the detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“We have agreed today to wait for the court’s decision, to wait to see … whether Alexei Navalny is set free after 30 days,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters. “This is not over.”

Earlier, Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, arriving in Brussels had said “a change is in the air in Russia” that the bloc must support, following Navalny’s detention as he returned to Russia from Germany.

“The EU needs to send a very clear and decisive message that this is not acceptable,” Landsbergis told reporters, calling upon the EU to send a “very clear and decisive message” to Moscow and to agree sanctions under its new human rights sanctions framework, which allows for quicker adoption of asset freezes and travel bans.

Navalny arrest could prompt inauguration of EU Magnitsky-style sanctions regime

The EU’s recently approved Magnitsky-style law allowing the 27-member bloc to impose sanctions on human rights abusers could soon come to life as calls grow in Europe to apply the new punitive measures to Russia over the detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

 

The EU has already imposed economic sanctions on the Russian energy, financial and arms sectors over its 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula.

It has also imposed sanctions on six Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin in response to Navalny’s poisoning last summer, as well as on one entity responsible for the destruction of Soviet-era chemical weapons stockpiles.

Fellow Baltic countries Latvia and Estonia support more EU sanctions on Russian individuals, and Italy’s foreign minister said on Sunday that Rome was ready to support more travel bans and asset freezes. Romania also publicly backed sanctions on Monday.

Germany and France will be central to deciding if the bloc goes ahead with punitive measures on Russia, a big oil and gas exporter to the EU.

Borrell’s Moscow visit

EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said he would go to Moscow next week to press the Kremlin to free demonstrators and Navalny. He is also set to hold talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

“It will be a good opportunity to discuss with my Russian counterpart all relevant issues,” Borrell told reporters.

Answering a question whether he will seek to meet with Navalny, Borrell dismissed the idea of linking his Moscow trip to a Navalny visit and also left open any estimation for a potential deadline for sanctions.

He added that the EU’s sanctions policy will be dictated by circumstances, without specifying what those could be.

EU leaders could discuss any further steps at a planned summit on 25-26 March, where Russia ties will be on the agenda, Borrell said.

Critics, however, were quick to point out that the Kremlin is likely to try and use the visit for propaganda purposes, namely a visit of a high-ranking EU official after the crackdown against the opposition and demonstrations.

Navalny had accused Putin of ordering his murder, which the Kremlin denies. His supporters held nationwide protests on Saturday, leading to more than 3,000 arrests and intensifying international calls for Navalny’s release.

In central Moscow over the weekend, where Reuters reporters estimated up to 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorised rallies for years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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