BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union foreign ministers on Monday will look at options for imposing fresh sanctions against Russia over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as the 27-nation bloc considers the future of its troubled ties with the country.
The ministers will discuss possible names of Russian officials and whether to target them individually or whether to use a new system of measures aimed at human rights abuses. But they appear unlikely to impose restrictions on oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin, as Navalny has requested.
“It’s clear that Russia is on a confrontational course with the European Union,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “In the case of Mr Navalny, there is a blunt refusal to respect their engagements, including the refusal of taking into account the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he was in favor of “issuing the mandate to impose such sanctions, preparing the listing of individuals.” A final decision on any sanctions is likely to be taken by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels in mid-March.
Navalny, 44, an anti-corruption investigator and Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested in Moscow last month upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.
Earlier this month, a court sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated.
The European Court of Human Rights has also ruled that it’s unlawful. Navalny's arrest and imprisonment have fueled a huge wave of protests across Russia. Authorities responded with a sweeping crackdown, detaining about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.
Borrell said he hoped that the ministers will respond “in a united and determined way.” But so far EU countries have been deeply divided over their approach to Moscow. Russia is the EU’s biggest natural gas supplier, and plays a key role in a series of international conflicts and key issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, and conflicts in Syria and Libya.
European heavyweight Germany has strong economic interests there, notably the NordStream 2 undersea pipeline project, and a number of countries, including France, are also reluctant to wade into any sanctions battle over Navalny.
“We need Russia to resolve many international conflicts, and so that will also be a question we must deal with: How is it possible to maintain a constructive dialogue with Russia, even though relations between the EU and Russia have certainly reached a low point?" Maas said.
The meeting comes two weeks after Borrell was publicly humiliated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a trip to the country. Russia expelled diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden, accusing them of attending a rally in support of Navalny.
Borrell found out about the move by social media. The three retaliated by each declaring a Russian diplomat “persona non grata.” Criticism of Borrell initially mounted, but Lavrov’s behavior now seems to have united the Europeans, at least publicly, in their opposition to Moscow’s attempts to further divide them.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will join the foreign ministers — who are also discussing coup in Myanmar, the Iran nuclear agreement, and tensions in Hong Kong — via videoconference.
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.