EU To Sanction Four Russian Officials Over Navalny Conflict

European Union foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on four Russian officials on February 22nd, 2021, and the motion is to be formally ratified in early March. The agreement to sanction senior members of President Vladimir Putin’s staff comes as a predominantly symbolic response to the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, says Reuters. France, Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states persuaded the EU to communicate with Putin that protests must be accepted in Russia. According to Reuters, the first Putin ally the sanctions will target is Alexander Bastrykin, who is already under British human rights sanctions. The suggested new Russian travel bans and asset freezes would affect Bastrykin and his Investigative Committee who report directly to Putin. Also to receive sanctions is Russia’s Prosecutor-General Igor Krasnov. Victor Zolotov, who leads Russia’s National Guard and threatened Navalny with violence in September of 2018, is third on the sanction list. The final recipient will be Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the federal prison service.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell says the sanctions will be placed on the four officials under a new EU framework that focuses on global human rights violators. There has been pressure to approve the sanctions following Russia’s expulsion of German, Polish, and Swedish diplomats without notifying Borrell. The foreign policy chief, along with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, hopes the sanctions will be ready in around a week. According to Maas via Reuters, “the relations (with Russia) are certainly at a low, there is no other word for it,” hence the pressure to impose sanctions quickly.

Though the retributions are a step toward greater freedoms in Russia, the listings do not meet demands of Navalny’s allies. Opposition leaders cataloged 35 people who should be targeted, including Russia’s notorious businessmen, commonly referred to as “oligarchs.” While penalties against Russian state officials can endure any legal pushback, it is more challenging to prove the oligarchs’ roles in human rights violations. According to Reuters, senior Navalny aide Leonid Volkov voiced that penalties against business executives would reveal that relations with Putin are liabilities rather than assets. “Being close to Putin is not as safe and pretty as it used to be,” Volkov argues. He also commended the EU’s additions to the sanction list, noting that this is “the first time personal sanctions are applied with regard to human rights violations, so it opens a way for further negotiation with Europe.”

The disciplinary actions against Russian officials serve as a warning by the EU, who is frustrated by Russia’s political affairs and abuses of human rights. The Kremlin’s harsh punishment of Navalny has only promoted violent behavior and prohibited freedom to protest. To work toward peace within Russia, the country must cooperate with the EU in creating productive strategies.

The European Union has a complex history with Russia. The group of nations tries to expand freedoms in Russia that have been oppressed under President Putin as well as address recent injustices. Mass protests have taken place in the past few months in response to arrests of Alexei Navalny. The opposition leader, who BBC News describes as “a thorn in the Kremlin’s side,” has had rocky relations with the Russian government for decades. According to Washington Post, in a personal conflict with Putin, Navalny accused the president of poisoning him last August. Russian authorities jailed Navalny on February 2nd for failing to report to parole officers following the poisoning. While Navalny insists the charges are “politically motivated,” he lost an appeal on Saturday. As the famous Kremlin critic undergoes more crackdowns from Putin, civil unrest heightens and protests worsen.

The EU now places sanctions on officials in an attempt indulge requests by Navalny’s allies and urge Russia to allow greater freedoms. According to the Washington Post, “the sanctions toughened the EU’s stance against Russia at a moment when the United States is also pursuing hardened measures against the Kremlin after four years in which President Donald Trump sought friendlier relations with Putin.” World powers are recognizing the instability in Russia and taking action to promote global peace. The Post also reports Josep Borrell’s opinion that “Russia is drifting towards an authoritarian state and driving away from Europe.” As the country keeps infringing on basic ethical EU laws, it further expresses its interest in “confrontation and disengagement from the European Union,” continues Borrell. Reuters notes how Russia accuses the EU of “meddling in its affairs.” The country also blamed the European Court of Human Rights for meddling following the Court’s demand of Navalny’s release in a ruling on February 17th.

Russia’s actions continue to contradict the EU’s plans for transnational cooperation. While the new sanctions will be put in place to both appeal Navalny supporters and encourage policy change, future Russian relations with the EU remain uncertain. European powers may continue to penalize Putin’s officials to address the ongoing turmoil.