The European Union will impose sanctions on Russia for imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, one of Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics.
Josep Borrell, head of the EU’s foreign affairs department, said a “political agreement” on the need for sanctions had been reached between the 27 EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels on Monday .
The bloc will use for the first time the “EU Magnitsky Law”, which allows sanctions to be imposed for human rights violations, he said.
“There is a shared assessment within the Council that Russia is drifting towards an authoritarian state,” Borrell said after the Brussels Foreign Affairs Council.
The EU’s chief diplomat said he hoped work on sanctions, which will target those involved “in the detention and persecution of Mr. Navalny”, would be completed within a week.
“There is a shared assessment in the Council that Russia is drifting towards an authoritarian state,” Borrell said after a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels.
“In response to the events surrounding Mr Navalny’s situation, we have reached a political agreement to impose restrictive measures against those responsible for his arrest and conviction, and prosecution for this fact,” he said. .
He added: “For the first time ever, we will be using the European Union’s global human rights regime. To that end, sanctions will be put in the pipeline of our administrative process.
“Maybe it will take a week and I hope no more than that,” he added, suggesting that he would be signed by written procedure.
Mr Borrell is expected to come up with four names for the sanctions but this number could be increased by member states. He declined to name the officials affected by the travel bans and the asset freeze.
EU diplomats said Alexander Bastrykin, whose commission of inquiry deals with major crimes and reports directly to Mr Putin, was on the list. He is already under British sanctions for human rights.
Igor Krasnov, Russia’s Attorney General, Viktor Zolotov, the head of the National Guard and Alexander Kalashnikov, the head of the federal prison service, are also on the list, Reuters reported.
Mr. Navalny’s allies had called on the EU to target Putin-allied oligarchs with sanctions, but the new measures fall short.
In November of last year, Mr Navalny told the European Parliament that the Kremlin would never take EU sanctions seriously as long as the yachts of the Russian super-rich were moored in European cities such as Barcelona and Monaco.
Mr Borrell said the EU was only able to legally target sanctions on people directly involved in events requiring punishment, which meant hitting the oligarchs was not possible in this case.
He told reporters that the EU had agreed on a three-pronged strategy in its relations with Moscow, which expelled diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for observing protests in Russia against the arrest of Mr. Navalny.
The strategy involved pushback when Russia violated international law and human rights, containment when Russia used disinformation and cyber warfare against the EU, and engagement in areas of common interest.
Mr. Borrell was forced to defend after a disastrous trip to Moscow in early February ended in a failure to meet even Mr. Navalny let alone secure his release. The humiliation was compounded by the expulsion of diplomats during the visit.
EU hit six top Russian officials with asset freezes and visa bans in October poisoning Mr. Navalny with a nerve agent. Mr. Navalny blames Vladimir Putin for the chemical weapons attack.
He was imprisoned for three and a half years on his return to Russia after barely surviving the assault on his life. A court dismissed his appeal against his conviction last week.
Vladimir Tchizhov, Russian Ambassador to the EU, said Russia would be “ready to respond” to any sanction from Brussels, which he described as “illegitimate”.
New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to EU foreign ministers gathered at Monday’s meeting. He condemned the chemical weapons attack on Mr. Navalny.
Borrell said he was “reasonably optimistic” about the prospects for EU negotiations with Tehran on the US return to the Iran nuclear deal.
He said he hoped there would be news “in the coming days” on efforts to revive Washington’s involvement in the deal.