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Alexei Navalny's death: EU mulls fresh sanctions on Russia

February 19, 2024

The EU has vowed to hold Moscow accountable after the death of dissident Alexei Navalny. Brussels is also brewing up fresh sanctions over the war in Ukraine.

Candles and flowers near a black and white photograph of former Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny
The EU decried Navalny's death as another sign of 'systematic repression in Russia'Image: Beata Zawrzel/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

"He was slowly murdered in a Russian jail by Putin's regime."

Those were the words used by the European Union's foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, to describe Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician reported dead last week. EU ministers held talks with Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, in Brussels on Monday, pledging their support after she accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of causing her husband's death behind bars

"Mr. Navalny's unexpected and shocking death is yet another sign of the accelerating and systematic repression in Russia," the bloc said in a statement. "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."

Borrell gave no timeline or details on possible sanctions, which will likely include asset freezes and travel bans against people or entities suspected of involvement in Navalny's death. "We will try and identify who is directly responsible. It's not easy because of course there we rely on Russian information," he told reporters.

Yulia Navalnaya (left) and Josep Borrell (right) in Brussels
Alexei Navalny's widow Yulia Navalnaya met with EU foreign ministers including top diplomat Josep Borrell on MondayImage: FRANCOIS LENOIR/European Union

More support for Russian opposition?

Maria Martisiute, a Russia analyst with the European Policy Center, fears individual sanctions would make little difference. "They would not be deterring enough," she told DW.

Martisiute argues the bloc should do more to support other Russian opposition politicians and their families at risk of meeting a similar end. "They should be given rights in democratic countries to live and do their work independently," she said. "They should be given an opportunity, if they want, to leave."

EU High Representative Borrell said several member states have already granted political asylum to a number of Russian dissidents, with one EU official telling DW the bloc offers additional support but keeps details tightly guarded to avoid additional security risks for those speaking out inside Russia.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also paid tribute to other political activists, saying on the sidelines of the talks, "The spirit of freedom can never be silenced forever."

"Alexei Navalny was one of the most visible opposition figures who courageously stood up for this freedom, but there are many, many more who are being held in prisons in the most brutal way because of their advocacy for freedom in Russia."

Three Ukrainian soldiers manning an artillery gun in Donetsk, Ukraine
Russia is continuing to wage war in Ukraine almost two years after launching its full scale invasionImage: Jose Colon/Andalou/picture alliance

Fresh calls to seize Russian assets

Martisiute says Brussels could deal an even bigger blow to Russia by seizing hundreds of billions of euros in assets frozen in the EU and offering them to war-torn Ukraine. Estonia's foreign minister echoed that call at talks in Brussels on Monday. "The best response and most clear response would be if we finally do our job: we have to support Ukraine," Margus Tsahkna told journalists. "We have to deal with the frozen assets. We have to use them."

The idea has been making its way through Brussels' bureaucracy for more than a year now but is fraught with legal obstacles. EU countries are now pursuing a plan B: setting aside profits from immobilized assets with a view of transferring the proceeds to Ukraine at a later date. Diplomats are hoping to finalize plans for this first step in the coming days.

Borrell said EU member states have been actively identifying and blocking funds. "It is one thing to identify and to block — and another to seize it and transfer it to the European Union budget," Borrell said, noting that talks on the matter would continue.

A Russian oil platform in the Caspian Sea
EU countries have already slapped a slew of sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine, including a ban on imports of most Russian oilImage: Dmitry Dadonkin/TASS/Sipa USA/IMAGO

New sanctions package ready for February 24?

Any potential sanctions over the death of Alexei Navalny would come on top of what the EU calls its "massive and unprecedented sanctions'' against Moscow over its attacks on Ukraine. Those include bans on the import of most Russian coal and oil, and travel bans and asset freezes against close to 2,000 businesses and officials, including Putin himself.

With the two-year anniversary of all-out war fast approaching, EU diplomats are racing to rubber stamp a 13th round of restrictions, set to include new restrictions on hundreds more individuals and entities. Hungary — which has stalled EU deals on support for Ukraine and restrictions on Russia on multiple occasions — had been holding out on green-lighting the latest package. On Monday, its foreign minister once again criticized plans to sanction Moscow but said Budapest would not block the agreement, clearing the path for adoption later this week.

Despite clear pressure on its economy, Russia often boasts of its resilience in the face of sanctions. Researcher Maria Martisiute acknowledges the latest measures will not represent a "big bang" in terms of pressure on Russia's war machine.

"There will be a 14th and 15th and 16th sanctions package," she explained. "All these steps add up eventually."

Edited by: Jon Shelton