By Robin Emmott and Sabine Siebold
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to impose sanctions on four senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin in a mainly symbolic response to the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
The agreement, which is expected to be formally approved by the EU in early March, came after France, Germany, Poland and the Baltic states urged the 27-member bloc to send a message to Putin that debate and protest must be allowed in Russia.
Navalny was arrested after returning to Moscow last month from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia with what Western nations said was a nerve agent. His arrest sparked protests across Russia.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the decision was taken to go ahead with sanctions quickly, but gave no details.
“The relations (with Russia) are certainly at a low, there is no other word for it,” Maas said.
One EU diplomat said the proposed new travel bans and asset freezes would target, among others, Alexander Bastrykin, whose Investigative Committee handles investigations into major crimes and reports directly to Putin.
Bastrykin is already under British human rights sanctions.
Also to be targeted, the diplomat said, is Igor Krasnov, who became Russia’s prosecutor-general a year ago.
The third official on the draft list is Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia’s National Guard, who publicly threatened Navalny with violence in September 2018. The fourth man named by the diplomat is Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the federal prison service.
The sanctions will be imposed under a new framework that allows the EU to take measures over human rights violators worldwide, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters. He said he hoped the sanctions would be ready in about a week.
The EU has already sanctioned six Russians and a state scientific research centre in response to the treatment of Navalny.
The proposed new listings fall far short of the demands made by Navalny’s allies, who have drawn up a list of 35 people including members of Russia’s business leaders- the so-called oligarchs – they want to see targeted.
EU governments say sanctions against senior state officials can better withstand legal challenges, while it is more difficult to prove business executives’ involvement in any human rights abuses.
Before the EU meeting, Leonid Volkov, a senior Navalny aide, said in Brussels that sanctions against oligarchs might be a way to weaken Putin if they came to feel that association with the president was more of a liability than a source of protection.
But Volkov welcomed Monday’s decision.
“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 said.
Navalny says the Kremlin was behind last August’s poisoning, but it denies this. He was jailed on Feb. 2 for violating the terms of parole on what he says was a politically motivated conviction. He lost an appeal on Saturday.
Russia accuses the EU of meddling in its affairs. It levelled the same accusation against the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU body, after it also demanded Navalny’s release in a ruling on Feb. 17.
Pressure in Europe for new sanctions has grown since Moscow expelled German, Polish and Swedish diplomats on Feb. 5 without telling Borrell, who was visiting Moscow at the time.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels and Sabine Siebold in Berlin, Editing by William Maclean, Gareth Jones and Timothy Heritage)