EU agrees to punish four Russian officials over crackdown

Max DELANY
·3-min read

EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to impose sanctions on four senior Russian officials deemed responsible for the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and a crackdown on his supporters, diplomats said.

The diplomats did not name the targeted individuals nor give details about them but the limited move looks set to disappoint those calling for a tough response against Moscow.

Navalny's associates and European lawmakers had urged the ministers meeting in Brussels to go after oligarchs accused of funding President Vladimir Putin's rule.

But diplomats said the punishment -- due to be the first imposed under the EU's new human rights regime -- would be focused on those directly linked to the crackdown.

"These will be targeted, proportionate and legally-based sanctions," a senior diplomat said.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell now has to officially put forward the names to be hit with sanctions in the coming days, the source said.

The mood towards Moscow had hardened across the bloc after Borrell was caught in a diplomatic ambush on a disastrous trip to Moscow this month, during which the Kremlin expelled three European diplomats.

The EU has already hit Russia with waves of sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Moscow's role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The bloc in October put six officials on a blacklist over the August poisoning of Navalny with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

Navalny, Putin's most prominent domestic critic, was this month jailed for almost three years after returning to Russia following treatment in Germany for his poisoning.

His sentencing sparked nationwide protests that saw baton-wielding security forces detain thousands of people.

Two of Navalny's closest associates pressed for sanctions against Putin's top circle -- including oligarchs -- at a meeting with eight EU foreign ministers in Brussels Sunday.

"If it's just 10 Kremlin officials who don't travel abroad and don't have assets abroad, then, indeed, it would not be painful," Navalny's key aide Leonid Volkov told journalists.

- Myanmar, Venezuela -

Ahead of their decision on Russia, the ministers announced the EU "stands ready" to impose sanctions on officers directly responsible for the Myanmar's military coup.

They called for "a de-escalation of the current crisis" triggered by the February 1 military takeover and demanded that the civilian leadership be restored.

The ministers also agreed to add 19 Venezuelan officials to a blacklist for "undermining democracy" and human rights abuses after the EU rejected legislative elections in December as undemocratic.

The ongoing repression in Belarus was under discussion as the EU weighs whether it needs to introduce a fourth round of sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko's regime.

Ministers eyed China's crackdown on Hong Kong as the EU tries to see if it needs to beef up its response as Beijing tightens it grip.

The focus was set to pivot to cooperation as new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined for his first full talks with the bloc via videolink, with all sides looking to put the tensions of the Trump era behind them.

The discussion was due to range from a joint approach to common adversaries like Russia and China to the pressing issue of trying to bring the US back into the Iran deal.

The EU is currently looking to broker a meeting between Washington, Tehran and other signatories -- including Moscow -- to try to work out how to salvage the accord after Trump quit it in 2018.

del/rmb/lc