23 Feb 2021
European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to impose sanctions on top Russian officials following the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a decision that was hastened by a tense trip to Moscow by the chief E.U. diplomat earlier this month.
The asset freeze and travel ban was intended to send a message to the Kremlin after Navalny was sentenced to 2½ years in prison this month, E.U. diplomats said. Russian authorities accused Navalny of failing to report to parole officers last year after he was nearly killed in a nerve agent attack that he says was directed by Russian leaders. He had a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he deemed politically motivated.
“Russia is drifting towards an authoritarian state and driving away from Europe,” E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in announcing the sanctions. “It is interested in confrontation and disengagement from the European Union.”
He said the sanctions would target officials responsible for Navalny’s detention and prosecution. Although the final list is subject to confirmation, E.U. officials plan to target two prosecutorial officials, the head of Russia’s national guard and the head of Russia’s prison service, diplomats said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
The measures will go into effect in about a week.
The sanctions toughened the E.U.’s stance against Russia at a moment when the United States is also pursuing hardened measures against the Kremlin after four years in which President Donald Trump sought friendlier relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken took part in the E.U. discussions via videoconference, the first direct contact between him and the top diplomats of the 27-nation body as a whole. They talked about Russia, China and reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Iran deal in 2018.
“We are looking forward to” reengaging with the United States, Borrell said, after E.U.-U.S. relations during the Trump administration scraped post-World War II lows.
Borrell’s trip to Moscow this month, intended as an effort to revive a dialogue with Russian leaders, badly backfired. He was criticized by other E.U. policymakers after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blasted Europe for what he said were human rights violations as he stood next to Borrell at a news conference.
In the end, the visit seems to have reversed Borrell’s stance on Russia. Shortly after the visit, he said he wanted new sanctions.
“Borrell now is more hawkish than us,” said one senior European diplomat who is skeptical of Russia.
By Michael Birnbaum, The Washington Post, 22 February 2021
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