EU holds off on new Russia sanctions after Navalny protest arrests

Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on January 23, 2021. — AFP pic
Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on January 23, 2021. — AFP pic

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BRUSSELS, Jan 25 — The European Union will hold off from imposing fresh sanctions on Russian individuals today, EU diplomats said, despite the arrest of more than 3,000 people across Russia on Saturday to demand the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Lithuania’s foreign minister, arriving in Brussels for a meeting of the bloc’s 27 top diplomats, said “a change is in the air in Russia” that the bloc must support, especially after 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,” Gabrielius Landsbergis said in a video statement, calling for more sanctions on Russian individuals.

However, the EU will for now go for a step-by-step approach with the Kremlin, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to first to go to Moscow to make clear the bloc’s anger at Navalny’s arrest, two diplomats said. EU states will also press for the release of pro-democracy demonstrators.

The EU already has economic sanctions on the Russian energy, financial and arms sectors over its 2014 annexation of the Crimea peninsula and has imposed sanctions on Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin in response to Navalny’s poisoning in August.

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 publicly backed sanctions oday.

However, Berlin is cautious. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has so far held back from further comment after demanding the immediate release of protesters who braved extreme cold to call for Navalny’s release.

In central Moscow on Saturday, 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.

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

Navalny says Putin was behind his poisoning last August, an accusation the Kremlin rejects. The Kremlin says Navalny’s case is a domestic matter and it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he wanted a “proper legal investigation” into the poisoning. — Reuters

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