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EU moves closer to new Russia sanctions as Navalny widow pins blame on Putin

people attend a vigil following the death of russian opposition leader alexei navalny, in paris
A vigil for Navalny at the Trocadero in Paris, France, February 19, 2024. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

 The European Union moved closer to new sanctions against Moscow over its war on Ukraine, as Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Russia’s top opposition leader who died in prison last week, said President Vladimir Putin must be held accountable.

Germany, Lithuania and Sweden were among EU countries calling for specific new penalties against Russia over the death of Alexei Navalny in a remote penal colony in Russia’s Arctic.

That came during a meeting of the 27 EU foreign ministers, which had been scheduled before Navalny‘s death, to discuss a package of fresh penalties to mark two years since Russia’s unleashed a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Hungary, the last EU country needed to pass the proposed new restrictions against nearly 200 more firms and people deemed involved in the war, said it would not stall the bloc’s 13th package of Russia sanctions since Moscow invaded Ukraine.

The EU’s top diplomat suggested that Russian prison officials linked to Navalny‘s death could be added to the list of those subjected to asset freezes and travel bans.

There was no immediate word of any more hard-hitting measures that could target Russia’s broader economy and an EU diplomat said so far it seemed any specific new sanctions related to Navalny‘s death would be “symbolic” and come later.

“The EU will spare no efforts to hold Russia’s political leadership and authorities to account, in close coordination with our partners; and impose further costs for their actions, including through sanctions,” EU foreign ministers said in a joint statement after their meeting with Navalnaya in Brussels.

They said Putin and Russian authorities held the ultimate responsibility for the death of Navalny and called for “an independent and transparent international investigation”.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she hoped the 27-nation EU would agree on the package of sanctions soon. EU officials say that could happen on Wednesday.

“We have seen the brutal force with which the Russian president represses his own citizens who take to the streets to demonstrate for freedom or write about it in newspapers,” she said. “We will propose new sanctions in light of the death of Alexei Navalny.”

The bloc’s top diplomat said he expected EU countries to seek targeted sanctions against certain Russian officials over the death of the 47-year-old former lawyer who built his profile on fighting state corruption in Russia.

“(EU) member states will propose sanctions for sure against those responsible,” said the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell who chaired Monday’s talks.

“We can go down the institutional structure of the penitentiary system in Russia,” he said indicating whom the bloc might sanction next for what he called “slow murder” of Navalny in Russian jails.

Navalny collapsed after a walk at the “Polar Wolf” penal colony last Friday, Russian authorities said, where he was serving a three-decade sentence following years of persecution that included poisoning with a nerve agent in Siberia in 2020.

His wife, who attended Monday’s meeting in Brussels, said separately she would continue her late husband’s fight, and called on supporters to hold Putin accountable and fight him with more determination than ever.

HUNGARY SAYS IT WON’T BLOCK SANCTIONS

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said that imposing more EU sanctions on Russia made no sense and would only hurt the bloc’s economy. But he added Budapest would not veto the package.

“There is no reason to veto it,” he said. “Although I think the EU is making a wrong decision.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has said in the past that he is “proud” about his Russia contacts, has stalled previous rounds of sanctions, as well as EU agreements on financial assistance to Kyiv.

The EU says it has cut Russia trade by some 135 billion euros since the invasion through military, energy, aviation, transport and financial sanctions, among others.

While Orban is the leading critic of the EU’s support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, some others in the bloc have questioned whether trade cuts are effective since they have not forced Moscow to change tack.

Lithuania is among EU Russia hawks countering such view.

If Ukraine falls… we will be next. Putin has no intention to stop, he wouldn’t be able to stop,” Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said.

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