EU foreign ministers on February 22 agreed to fresh sanctions against "specific persons" over Russia's jailing of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and a crackdown on his allies, according to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by saying it was "disappointed" at the bloc's move and accusing the EU Foreign Affairs Council of invoking a "far-fetched pretext" to prepare "new unlawful restrictions on Russian citizens."
Moscow also rejected as "categorically unacceptable" outside demands for the release of a Russian national convicted by a Russian court, as Navalny has been in processes that he and Western governments have said are politically motivated.
Top diplomats from the EU’s 27 members gathered in Brussels were weighing targeted measures against Russian individuals and institutions, such as asset freezes and visa bans, under the bloc's newly created sanctions instrument to punish human rights violators.
"The relations are certainly at a low, there is no other word for it," Maas said in Berlin after returning from the meeting with his counterparts in Brussels. "Therefore, we decided today to impose further sanctions and list specific persons."
Anonymous diplomatic sources were quoted by multiple agencies as saying ministers had agreed behind closed doors to punish four senior, unnamed Russian officials tied to the Navalny case and clampdown.
One diplomat told Reuters that Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the federal Investigative Committee, which conducts criminal probes and reports directly to President Vladimir Putin, would be on the list.
But those reports were not confirmed.
Maas said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, whose disastrous trip to Moscow nearly two weeks ago highlighted Russian tensions with the bloc, will propose specific individuals to be targeted by the new sanctions.
The German foreign minister predicted the sanctions list would be agreed within days.
EU leaders have sought to balance calls for the West to send a meaningful international signal to Moscow with appeals for caution to preserve increasingly frayed ties with Russia.
The step follows weeks of internal EU debate since Navalny was detained last month upon his returned from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he and supporters say was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In October 2020, the EU placed six Russian officials on a blacklist over the poisoning of Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok.
In a recorded speech to a UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on February 22, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned what he said was Russia's use of "chemical weapons" against Navalny and urged compliance with the UN ban on such toxins.
Maas had urged his EU counterparts to give the green light for the preparation of additional sanctions on Russia.
"I am in favor of ordering the preparation of additional sanctions, of listings of specific persons," Maas said at his arrival for the talks in Brussels, adding, "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."
"Another opportunity has been missed for the European Union to rethink the course of artificial linkages, sanctions, and pressure in relations with Russia that has been shown to be a complete failure in recent years," the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said after the EU foreign ministers' meeting.
It said Brussels was "instinctively pushing again on the inoperative sanctions 'button.'"
Over the weekend, a Moscow court upheld a 2 1/2 year prison sentence imposed on Navalny earlier in February for a parole violation related to a previous embezzlement conviction. In another case, the Kremlin critic was fined for allegedly insulting a World War II veteran. Both trials were decried as politically motivated.
"We consider it categorically unacceptable the constantly expressed unlawful and absurd demands for the 'release' of a citizen of the Russian Federation who was convicted of economic crimes by a Russian court on the territory of our country in accordance with Russian law," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The move to further sanction Russia comes nearly two weeks after the controversial visit by Borrell that coincided with the expulsion of three EU diplomats from Russia.
Borrell noted on February 21 that Russia continues to ignore a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) demanding Navalny be set free.
EU member states, led by Poland and the Baltic countries, are calling for a hard line against Russia, including additional economic sanctions.
On the eve of the meeting in Brussels, two of Navalny's closest allies met in the Belgian capital with eight EU foreign ministers and several EU ambassadors.
One of the allies, Leonid Volkov, told AFP they "talked about targeted personal sanctions against Putin's closest allies and people who are guilty of major human rights violations.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis organized the meeting.
A group of EU members, including influential France and Germany, were calling for a more targeted approach and ruling out economic sanctions.
Unanimity among all the bloc's members is normally required to impose sanctions.
The United States, EU, Britain, and Canada have already hit Russia with a number of sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Moscow's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.