MEPs have mixed feelings over EU foreign affairs ministers deciding to impose new individual sanctions on close allies of Vladimir Putin in the wake of Alexei Navalny’s jailing.
Navalny, 44, Putin’s most prominent critic, was arrested in Moscow last month upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.
Earlier this month, a court sentenced Navalny to two years and eight months in prison for violating the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated.
An agreement was reached over the new sanctions on Monday,
If approved by the European Council, it will be the first time the EU has used a new mechanism to facilitate punitive measures against human rights abuses.
Witold Jan Waszczykowski, a Polish conservative MEP, called the sanctions a “joke”.
“These are not even symbolic sanctions," he said. "Just a few people were asked not to travel to the European Union. Most of these people will never be allowed to travel to the European Union because they are either party members or the security service members, so this is a very meaningless penalty imposed on Russia."
While most MEPs agree more should be done to prevent Russia from cracking down on critical voices, French MEP Nathalie Loiseau believes these fresh sanctions showed European unity, which will resonate with the Russian president.
“Vladimir Putin is a chess player,” she told Euronews. “He assesses the situation, he tries to divide the member states of the European Union but when he feels we are united, usually he restrains himself. So I think it’s a first step but I definitely think that we should think of going further.”
Loiseau means imposing economic sanctions or targeting Russian oligarchs. But the EU has to tread carefully and respect the rule of law, according to Jamie Shea, a senior fellow at the think tank Friends of Europe.
“The sanctions have to hold up in court, particularly if they are challenged by the Russian individuals concerned and those of course who are in the government or the criminal justice system are much more implicated directly in what has happened to Navalny than people who may be juicy targets if I can use that term but who are outside the chain of command. The EU has to be careful in that case,” Shea argued.
He also added that the EU sanctions could pave the way for other countries to follow suit.
In this respect, all eyes are on Washington to see how Joe Biden will deal with his Russian counterpart.