EU Starts Work on Russia Sanctions Over Navalny Imprisonment

The European Union is working on a proposal to sanction Russia over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who suffered a near-fatal nerve-agent attack that he and Western governments blamed on Russian intelligence services.

EU ambassadors discussed the punitive measures at a meeting on Wednesday, according to two diplomats familiar with the discussion. No member states objected to the proposal, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks were private.

European Commission spokesman Peter Stano declined to comment on the discussions, but added that “work is ongoing” on possible actions. EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said on Tuesday that the EU’s next steps could include sanctions and that he would “put forward concrete proposals.”

The sanction discussion comes after Borrell weathered intense criticism over a humiliating trip to Moscow last week, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a joint press conference to disparage the bloc, criticizing the EU as an unreliable partner. Russia simultaneously announced that it would expel three diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden for their “recorded participation” in protests against the imprisonment of Navalny. The EU countries reciprocated in kind.

EU Starts Work on Russia Sanctions Over Navalny Imprisonment

After returning from Moscow, Borrell said that “Europe and Russia are drifting apart.”

February Meeting

At Wednesday’s meeting, at least 10 ambassadors expressed their disappointment at how Borrell’s visit went, according to a diplomatic note seen by Bloomberg. Most of the same governments welcomed that the discussion was shifting to tangible action, including sanctions.

The note added that the EU’s foreign ministers could take an initial decision on any restrictive measures when they meet on Feb. 22. The EU’s 27 leaders will also be discussing relations with Russia next month. Any decision to apply new sanctions would require unanimity.

A senior Navalny ally urged the EU to show “political will” as it weighs the punitive measures. “The EU doesn’t need to build a legal case that can be defended in court -- sanctions are a political decision,” Vladimir Ashurkov, who took part in a video call Monday with representatives of the 27 EU nations, the U.K. and U.S., said in a phone interview Wednesday. “If not now, then when?”

The ruble slipped early this year as fears of new sanctions added to pressures, but in the past two weeks the currency has recovered some of the ground lost.

London-based Ashurkov on Feb. 8 sent a sanctions list of 35 Russians including senior officials, state bankers and billionaire oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov to U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

“If eight are sanctioned, that would be a coup in itself, if 35 are sanctioned that would be huge leap,” Ashurkov said.

A spokesperson for Abramovich said there is “no foundation” for the claims Ashurkov made about the tycoon in his list. A representative for Usmanov declined to comment.

Navalny, 44, was detained in mid-January upon his return from Germany, where he was treated for the poisoning that he and Western nations blamed on President Vladimir Putin’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB. The Kremlin denied any role in the nerve-agent attack.

A Moscow court on Feb. 2 sentenced Navalny to 2 years and 8 months for violating probation terms of an earlier suspended fraud conviction. His jailing sparked the biggest anti-Putin protests in years and a violent crackdown with 11,000 arrests and the prosecution of Navalny aides. Russia has repeatedly rejected EU and U.S. calls to free him.

At Wednesday’s meeting of EU ambassadors, several governments, including Germany and France, while expressing their disappointment with Russia’s behavior and actions, urged to also maintain a longer-term perspective and multi-pronged approach toward the country.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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