A European Union foreign ministers’ decision to impose fresh sanctions on Russia for jailing Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny has frustrated Russian political activists, who say the proposed punitive action is feeble and warn it will have little impact on Moscow.
The EU agreed Monday to impose what it described as "landmark sanctions" against several senior Russian security service officials over the Kremlin’s crackdown on Navalny and his supporters.
The sanctions are the first under a new European mechanism to punish human rights abusers, which can include bans on entering the bloc and freezing any EU-based assets.
“Russia is drifting towards an authoritarian state and driving away from Europe,” said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell after the sanctions were agreed upon.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined the virtual meeting in which the sanctions were discussed and which will likely be coordinated with Washington in the coming days, U.S. officials say.
Borrell said the EU would have a three-pronged approach toward Moscow: “to push back when [Russia] infringes international law and human rights; to contain when it seeks to increase its pressure on us, including through disinformation and cyberattacks; and to engage when and on issues where we have an interest in doing so.”
Leonid Volkov, a Navalny associate, welcomed the sanctions but only as an opening salvo, saying he hoped the action will just be the start of a tougher stance toward Moscow.
“Even if it’s too little ... it’s the first time personal sanctions are applied with regard to human rights violations. So, it opens a way for further negotiation on this with Europe,” he told reporters.
Mixed reactions to sanctions
But activists voiced dismay that the EU sanctions fall far short of what they hoped for and have been demanding. They have been lobbying for much broader action, including targeting oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially those who have invested a large portion of their wealth in Europe.
EU officials say they shied away from penalizing oligarchs, fearing legal obstacles and court challenges.
Navalny survived a near-fatal poisoning last year and was arrested when he returned to Moscow in January following lifesaving treatment in Germany. He has been sentenced to serve nearly three years on parole violations.
Navalny’s top lieutenants, Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, who briefed reporters Monday in Brussels, say they have been pressing the EU to target Russian officials, from prosecutors to police and government officials, involved in the persecution of opponents of Putin. The activists offered a list of 35 individuals, which included businessmen and the head of the FSB intelligence agency.
“Europe has actually built a huge database of human rights violators that just needs to be applied, and this is the database of the existing verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights,” Volkov said. “There are thousands of violations, and they are all documented. So, every time we get arrested for participation in a rally, we appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.”
But the EU will likely sanction only four highly placed officials involved in Navalny's jailing — the head of Russia’s investigative committee, the director of prisons, the director of the country’s national guard and the prosecutor-general. The much-reduced list is a result, say analysts, of sharp divisions between EU member states over the scale of the response. Poland has pressed especially hard for tough and wide-ranging sanctions.
Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau made a strong case Monday for punitive measures, according to officials who observed the meeting of EU ministers, arguing that the Kremlin had shown it has no wish to cooperate with Europe on a good-faith basis. EU divisions, he said, merely advertise European weakness toward a resurgent Moscow.
Germany is more cautious about sanctions. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters Monday that he supports fresh sanctions but wants to keep dialogue going with Russia.
“I am in favor of ordering the preparation of additional sanctions, of listings of specific persons,” Maas said. “At the same time, we need to talk about how to keep up a constructive dialogue with Russia, even as relations certainly have reached a low.”
The sanctions list has also prompted criticism from civil society leaders and rights campaigners in Europe. Jakub Janda, director of the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy, tweeted: “After Russia tries to murder the opposition leader and smacks thousands peacefully demonstrating, the EU will sanction FOUR Russian individuals. This is a joke, Putin must be laughing.”
Last week, more than 160 European politicians and civil society leaders issued an appeal to the EU to demand not only Navalny’s release from jail but also the cancellation of Nord Stream 2, the nearly completed underwater natural gas pipeline linking Russia to Germany.
EU officials will now start drafting the framework of the sanctions. One official told VOA there remains the possibility that the list may be expanded beyond the four.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is currently reviewing the effectiveness of sanctions on Russia, with the aim, say some officials, of possibly readjusting them to increase their immediate impact. Western diplomats say they have been left with the impression from conversations with Biden’s foreign policy advisers that the administration wants to fashion a more rounded and consistent Western strategy toward Russia — one that aligns military, economic, energy, diplomatic and communications policies.
Biden officials also have been urging allied governments behind the scenes to avoid sending mixed signals to Moscow by seeking to expand economic ties that undercut the economic impact — and political symbolism — of sanctions. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which American officials fear will make Europe more energy-dependent on Russia and help isolate Ukraine from western Europe, is a source of special worry.
Kremlin officials have downplayed the impact of a series of Western sanctions that began to be imposed in retaliation for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, apparently hoping to persuade Western governments to abandon them on the grounds they are ineffective. Part of Moscow’s line has been that sanctions are hurting Western countries much more than Russia itself, a position often echoed by business interests in the West.
But while the Kremlin has downplayed the significance of the sanctions, it also has railed against them and maintained that they should be lifted.
Russia’s EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, said Monday that Moscow would respond to any new punitive measures.
And Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement following the meeting of EU foreign ministers that the sanctions are “unlawful,” "disappointing" and adopted under a “far-fetched pretext."
The Foreign Ministry called demands for Navalny's release “absurd,” as the arrested opposition leader was “convicted by a Russian court” on Russian territory in “accordance with Russian law.”
Sanctions, according to the statement, amount to “interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.”
Several Western sanctions have been imposed on Russia since 2014 in response to Moscow-backed separatism in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and what Western governments see as malicious cyber activities.
Sanctions also have been imposed for alleged human rights abuses and for the March 2018 nerve agent poisoning in Britain of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
Some sanctions have been broad, economic ones. Others have targeted individuals.
Several Biden advisers have in the past scorned sanctions targeting high-profile individuals, from oligarchs to government officials. They have argued that sanctioned individuals are compensated by the Kremlin and are not going to lobby Putin to modify policies, as their status and wealth depend on loyalty to him.
Victoria Nuland, now a top official at the U.S. State Department, said last year that sanctions needed to be rethought. In Foreign Affairs magazine, she wrote, "U.S. and allied sanctions, although initially painful, have grown leaky or impotent with overuse and no longer impress the Kremlin."