Another round of EU sanctions hit Russia

Photographer: Vasily Maximov Source: EC – Audiovisual Service

In response to the treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny since his return to Russia, EU foreign ministers decided on Monday to impose a new set of sanctions on individuals in the country. The heads of state and government will likely agree in their next European Council meeting, and when they do, at least four more individuals will be hit by asset freezes and entry bans to the EU. It is likely that among them will be the head of Russia’s federal prisons service as well as the prosecutor’s general. These sanctions will be a response to Russia’s trial and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, who is a political activist and Kremlin critic.

As the latest development in a series of sanctions that have been imposed since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, these new sanctions come with a twist: for the first time, the EU is using a new sanctions mechanism designed to punish human rights abuses. Navalny had been flown out to Germany for treatment after having been poisoned with the Soviet-style nerve agent Novichok in August last year, most probably by Russia. Upon his return to Moscow following his recovery, he was immediately arrested for parole violations and sent to prison. Navalny claims the trial was politically motivated. This caused a massive wave of protests across Russia, and led to the arrest of thousands of protestors.

Moreover, the new sanctions also seem to be a consequence of the recent frosty EU-Russia encounter, when High Representative Borrell travelled to Moscow to gauge Russia’s willingness to cooperate with the EU and got a pretty clear answer: disengagement is the new course. Borrell’s visit was overshadowed by the unannounced expulsion of three EU diplomats who were blamed to have participated in the ‘illegal’ protests for Navalny. All this prompted the European Parliament’s chair of the foreign affairs committee, David McAllister, to evaluate the situation as “an historical low point” in EU-Russia relations, since Russia appears to be drifting further and further away from Europe.

The EU has had sanctions against Russia in place since 2014, when the Ukraine crisis broke out and Russian forces annexed Crimea. Since then, the downing of flight MH17 by Russian-backed separatists in 2014, the poisoning of former agent Skripal in 2018 and Navalny in August 2020, and the construction of the Kerch Bridge and railway route linking Crimea to Russia in October last year have all led to the EU imposing an increasingly wide-reaching sanctions regime. And considering the latest development, an end does not seem in sight yet.