The European Union’s top diplomat has said Russia’s government was increasingly authoritarian and showed no tolerance of democratic rule of law, warning that a new round of sanctions was a possibility.
“They are merciless,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the European Parliament on Tuesday, after making a rare visit to Moscow last week to plead for the release of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny.
“The current power structure in Russia, combining vested economic interests, military and political control, leave no opening for democratic rule of law,” he said.
Navalny’s imprisonment has heightened tensions between Russia and the EU.
Western leaders are demanding the release of the opposition figure, and several European nations back Borrell’s threat of additional sanctions on Moscow.
EU foreign ministers will debate possible sanctions against the Kremlin on February 22 at a meeting in Brussels.
Russia-EU tensions spiked on Friday after Moscow expelled three European diplomats during Borrell’s visit, accusing them of taking part in pro-Navalny protests.
Germany, Sweden and Poland retaliated on Monday by ordering the removal of a Russian diplomat each.
The Kremlin has said it will not listen to Western criticism of Navalny’s sentencing and police action against his supporters.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday charged that Navalny’s allies were “agents of influence” of NATO and that they changed their mind about putting protests on pause after receiving instructions from the bloc’s members “on how to be ‘smarter’ about continuing the subversive work”.
Zakharova pointed to an online conference with EU, US and UK officials that Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally based outside Russia, and another associate, Vladimir Ashurkov, took part in on Monday.
Volkov said on Twitter that sanctions against individual Russian officials and tycoons were being discussed at the event.
Navalny and his team say that for the Kremlin to change its course, the West should introduce targeted sanctions against oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicated on Tuesday that the Kremlin backed legislation that would hold those calling for sanctions against Russia criminally liable.
“Obviously such an initiative will enjoy massive support,” Peskov told reporters.
Navalny was arrested on arrival in Moscow in mid-January after recovering in Germany from an alleged Novichok poisoning attack the West believes was ordered by the Kremlin. Russia denies the accusations.
He was jailed for nearly three years last week for violating parole conditions of his suspended sentence while in Germany.
Call for smaller-scale demonstrations
After at least 10,000 people were arrested during the recent protests, Navalny’s team had postponed mass rallies until the spring or summer.
But on Tuesday, Volkov proposed staging courtyard protests on Sunday – a new form of rallies similar to decentralised demonstrations in neighbouring Belarus – that could help avoid detentions.
“Love is stronger than fear,” he wrote on Facebook in reference to the rallies on Valentine’s Day.
Peskov however warned that anyone violating the law would be punished.
“We will not play cat and mouse with anyone,” he said.