The European Union will wait to see if Russia releases jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny before deciding to impose fresh sanctions, amid heightened calls for tough action after a brutal weekend police crackdown that saw thousands of Russians detained during protests in support the jailed opposition figure.
"We have agreed today to wait for the court's decision, to wait to see...whether Alexsei Navalny is set free after 30 days," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters following a January 25 meeting with his EU counterparts. "This is not over."
Navalny was detained a week ago upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning by a military-grade nerve agent in August he blames President Vladimir Putin of ordering. A court is expected to decide in early February whether to imprison Navalny for a suspended sentence in a case that is widely considered trumped up and politically motivated.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said he would go to Moscow next week to urge Moscow to free protesters and Navalny. EU leaders could discuss further action against Russia at a planned summit on March 25-26, he said.
The foreign ministers of former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are among those demanding expanded sanctions against Russian officials responsible for arrests.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the 27-member bloc “needs to send a very clear and decisive message that this is not acceptable."
Russia has rebuffed the global outrage and a chorus of international calls calling for Navalny’s release.
Meanwhile, Navalny and his allies aren't backing down, seeking to build on momentum and international focus on the issue.
Leonid Volkov, a top ally of Navalny, praised the turnout in cities and towns across all of Russia's 11 time zones in bitterly cold temperatures as he called for fresh demonstrations on January 31.
"All cities of Russia. For freedom for Navalny. For freedom for everyone. For justice," he wrote on Twitter.
According to the independent political watchdog OVD-Info, more than 3,700 people were taken into custody during the nationwide protests on January 23, Russia's biggest anti-government demonstrations in years.
The figure includes over 1,400 detentions in Moscow, where several people were injured in clashes with police.
A court is expected to decide on February 2 whether to convert into prison time the suspended 3 1/2-year sentence that Navalny served in an embezzlement case that is widely considered trumped up and politically motivated. The suspended sentence ended on December 30.
Navalny says it is a trumped-up case designed to silence him and called for Russians to "take to the streets" in protest.
Tens of thousands of people did just that in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major cities to protest against state corruption as well as Navalny’s arrest. Numerous reports emerged from the demonstrations of police using excessive force, including beatings.
"Time and time again, Russian authorities have suppressed free speech and peaceful protest through police brutality, violence, and mass arrests and January 23 was no exception," Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at HRW, said in a statement on January 25.
Aitkhozhina said the Russian authorities "understand their obligations to respect fundamental human rights and choose not just to ignore them but to trample all over them."
Authorities refused to sanction the protests called for by Navalny and his team, often citing restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At least 60 people, including members of Navalny's team and well-known activists, were detained ahead or on the day of the protest across the country.
Amid strong Western condemnation of the crackdown, Russia accused the United States and its allies of interfering in Russian domestic affairs.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov criticized the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for issuing a routine alert warning people to avoid the demonstrations and a statement denouncing “the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists.”
“Continued efforts to suppress Russians’ rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, the arrest of opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, and the crackdown on protests that followed are troubling indications of further restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms,” the embassy said.
Peskov called the U.S. statements "inappropriate," adding that "of course indirectly, they are absolutely an interference in our domestic affairs."
Meanwhile, the Russian Embassy in London accused Western countries of encouraging demonstrations.
"Hypocrites continue to inflate the fake #Navalny case to interfere into internal affairs of our country. This is a professionally prepared provocation, encouraged by embassies of Western countries, including US Embassy in Moscow," it tweeted.
There was no indication that the United States and other countries had any role in the protests.
In an interview broadcast on January 24, Peskov said that if the new administration of President Joe Biden would be open to dialogue, he had no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin would reciprocate.