Individuals in Russia's judiciary could face EU sanctions in the coming days, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday.
"The EU will not be silent" about the persecution of anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, Maas told reporters following a meeting of top diplomats from the bloc.
"Relations (with Russia) are certainly at a low — there is no other word for it," Maas said, while also referring to a recent Moscow visitby EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
"Therefore, we decided today to impose further sanctions and list specific persons," he added. Though Maas did not provide names, he said the new measures would be focused on Russian officials "from the judiciary."
Visa bans, asset freezes
Previously, diplomatic sources said the foreign ministers had agreed to impose sanctions on four top Russian officials.
The agreement came after France, Germany, Poland and the Baltic countries urged the bloc to take steps against the Kremlin.
EU diplomats also told reporters that the meetings did not address specific names.
But officials will now start drafting the framework of restrictions, including asset freezes and visa bans against individuals responsible for the repressive actions against protesters and Navalny himself.
Germany's Maas spoke to the press before the meeting, expressing his support for sanctions as well as keeping dialogue channels with Russia open.
"I am in favor of ordering the preparation of additional sanctions, of listings of specific persons," Maas said on his arrival to the talks.
"At the same time, we need to talk about how to keep up a constructive dialogue with Russia, even as relations certainly have reached a low," he added.
How did Russia respond?
In a statement Monday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said the EU sanctions are "unlawful," "disappointing" and adopted under a "far-fetched pretext."
The Foreign Ministry called demands for Navalny's release "unacceptable" and "absurd," as the arrested opposition leader was "convicted by a Russian court" on Russian territory in "accordance with Russian law."
Sanctions, according to the statement, amount to "interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.
EU, Russia on a collision course
Eight EU foreign ministers, as well as several EU ambassadors, met with two of Navalny's close allies on Sunday evening ahead of the talks.
Leonid Volkov, a close aide of Navalny's, told DW that the bloc should focus on sanctioning Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.
"The strongest answers that could be given would be personal targeted sanctions against Putin's closest allies, the most important parts of the repressive machine he's built," Volkov said.
"Unlike sectoral sanctions against [the] Russian economy," he added, "these personal sanctions couldn't be deemed by Russian propaganda for their favor."
Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, which organized Sunday's discussion, said "the biggest hope for [Monday] is that we will make a unanimous decision about the list" of people to be sanctioned.
Relations between Russia and the European Union have continued to break down despite a recent visit by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to Moscow, which was widely considered to have been a catastrophe.
Borrell himself admitted as much before Monday's meeting. "It's clear that Russia is on a confrontational course with the European Union," he said.
Years of EU sanctions against Russia
The EU imposed sanctions on a series of individuals, including close allies of Putin's, back in October, after the poisoning of the Navalny with the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent. Russia responded with its own individual sanctions and the expulsion of three EU diplomats, which was announced during Borrell's trip.
Speaking to the UN-backed Conference on Disarmament, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Moscow of having "used chemical weapons to try to assassinate its own people," including Navalny,
Russia had already been hit with sanctions following its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing of insurgents in Ukraine.
But the Kremlin has also seen a wave of protests after police arrested Navalny on his return to the country in January. The political activist has been sentenced to almost three years in prison. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Navalny's sentencing was unlawful.
ab/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)