REVIEW - EU Responds With Lightest Possible Sanctions Against Moscow Over Navalny Case

BRUSSELS (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 24th February, 2021) The European Union's new set of sanctions against Moscow over the situation with Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, introduced on Monday, turned out to be purely symbolic, but did make use of the bloc's new mechanism to facilitate punitive measures against perceived human rights abuses.

The new legal framework, adopted in late 2020, aims at punishing "genocides, crimes against humanity and other serious forms of human rights violations or abuses." As in the case with the US' Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, adopted to combat human rights abuses, this rather wide legislation now allows the EU to react more quickly, without going through the long and tedious creation of ad hoc sanctions regime for a given country.

The new sanctions target only four senior Russian officials, who, according to the European Commission, are involved in the arrest, trial and imprisonment of Navalny. According to diplomatic sources, they will be hit with asset freezes and entry bans to the bloc, which will only take effect once the European Council holds a meeting in early March.

Supporters of the Russian opposition activist have expressed their disappointment with the EU's move, as they have been calling for months for sanctioning Russian oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in turn, said it regretted this "disappointing decision, which imposes illegal and unilateral sanctions taken under a convoluted pretext."

BRUSSELS SEES SANCTIONS AS TIT-FOR-TAT FOR RIDICULING BORRELL IN MOSCOW

In early February, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell paid a visit to Moscow to hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and plead the case of Navalny to the Russian authorities. The visit coincided with Moscow's decision to expel three European diplomats, who had attended unauthorized opposition demonstrations in Russia.

Several days after leaving Russia, Borrell made several comments criticizing Russia, with a number of members of the European Parliament from the main parties and far-left groups demanding that heavy sanctions and retaliatory measures be taken by the European Union over the expulsion of the diplomats. However, the bloc targeted only four Russian officials with new sanctions following the visit.

"Everybody knows that these sanctions against a few individuals, who [will] never come to Europe anyway, are not effective. It is only an indication that Europe is vigilant and does not want to accept 'impunity,'" a European diplomat from the EU Council told Sputnik under the condition of anonymity.

According to the official, some EU member states currently seek to avoid imposing any new sanctions on Moscow, as they expect Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine or the soon completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline's construction.

"It is a fact that Germany is not keen on sanctions, now that they try to complete the last few kilometers of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Merkel personally drives this question, very discreetly. The same for Hungary that has ordered Russian Sputnik V vaccines and has been actively discussing energy issues with Moscow," the diplomat said.

Meanwhile, several other member states do not believe sanctions are effective or are afraid of retaliation measures by Russia, the diplomat said, adding that Rome, for example, does not want another ban on one of its famous cheeses, such as Parmesan, which caused real problems for the dairy industry in Northern Italy.

Though EU foreign ministers agreed to sanction Moscow over the Navalny case, they mostly believe there is an interest in keeping relations with Moscow going.

"We must look for ways for dialogue, we need the help of Russia in [settling] many international conflicts," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday, adding that EU-Russia cooperation is vital to working on solutions for Syria and Libya.

EU'S NEW LEGAL MECHANISM BREAKTHROUGH FOR EUROPE

Commenting on the sanctions against Moscow over the Navalny case, Nina Bachkatov, a politologist at Belgium's ULiege university and head of the Russia-Eurasia think tank, noted that this was the first time the bloc used its new legal framework regarding human rights abuses.

"For me, the most interesting thing in this instance is that the EU is using for the first time its new legislation to punish countries, regimes, people etc. who have violated human rights. I am talking about the European-style Magnitsky law, which has yet to be tested. It is also interesting to see the legal debate, which took place before Monday's meeting and which is expected to last until the European summit of the heads of state in March. Because it must be remembered that the ministers agreed to propose sanctions to the Council, they cannot decide," Bachkatov told Sputnik.

According to the specialist, this is not a capitulation, or a retreat, on the part of the EU as some have quickly claimed but a legitimate attitude of the bloc, which is trying to give a legal framework to the defense of democratic values.

"But it also appears that sanctions, especially economic ones, which are not in the European DNA as they are in the United States, appear more and more as a foreign policy by default. As a reminder, the ministers also discussed sanctions on Belarus, Burma and Iran," Bachkatov added.

Meanwhile, Pietro Fiocchi, an Italian member of the European Parliament, told Sputnik that the media hit the point by saying that these sanctions against Moscow are only symbolic.

"Four people only who will not be allowed to have accounts in Europe or travel to our part of the world. They are only linked to the trial of Navalny and to security issues. This is ludicrous! The Europeans' sanctions will not be increased, due to a clear opposition by Germany that wants to finally open Nord Stream 2, which must irrigate the whole of Europe, through the Orion network of gas pipelines. It reflects the overall very weak and indecisive foreign policy by the EU," Fiocchi said.

Nikola Markovic, a Paris-based political analyst and specialist on Eastern Europe, in turn, slammed the "mini-sanctions" as ridiculous for Europe, but at the same time, also noted that the bloc is getting used to imposing restrictive measures.

"These mini-sanctions on Russia are pretty ridiculous for Europe. It is becoming a habit for Brussels to sanction governments. What influence do European sanctions have on some Chinese executives regarding the treatment of demonstrations in Hong Kong? Or on government officials in Venezuela? Moreover, it is quite shocking to see the EU sanctioning states all over the world while, at the same time, its member states repress opinions," Markovic told Sputnik.

The specialist, in particular, refers to the recent imprisonment of Catalan rapper Pablo Hasel in Spain for tweets attacking the police and the monarchy and the probe into French singer Francis Lalanne for allegedly attacking the fundamental interests of the nation after he published a piece lambasting the government and President Emmanuel Macron and calling for mass disobedience.

"Is not that a forbidding an opinion? ... I have no opinion on the statements of these artists, but they are not terrorists ... It is not the Mohamed Merah and other Coulibaly who massacred citizens ... Still in France, the interior minister Darmanin starts a procedure to forbid a sovereigntist association of youngsters, never condemned and demonstrating peacefully, Generation Identitaire ... Europe is really badly placed to teach the world!" the analyst concluded.

According to Markovic, though the impact of these symbolic sanctions on Russia is completely nil, they, in fact, represent a way for Europe "to pledge allegiance to the new tenant of the White House in Washington, Joe Biden, who adopted a firm tone vis-a-vis Russia to distinguish itself from its predecessor, Donald Trump."

"Biden has already announced that unlike Trump he will not invite Russia to the next G7 [summit]. Joe Biden has accused Moscow of 'attacking our democracies' and Vladimir Putin of seeking 'to weaken the European project.' Of course, Biden wants to sell American shale gas to Europeans and is trying to stop the doubling of Russian gas delivery through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. All of this is so evident. It borders on the ridiculous, there too, for example, when Biden says that 'the United States will no longer submit to Russia,'" Markovic added.

The specialists believe that Biden probably intends to be very hard on Russia initially, by allowing NATO member Turkey to sell arms to Ukraine while NATO trains the Ukrainian military before proposing to Russia to sit down at the negotiating table to discuss, in particular, atomic weapons, as well as Syria, Georgia, Ukraine.

"There is a lot of rhetoric behind these statements by the US president. And Europeans do not want to be outdone. Nothing serious yet," he said.

Thierry Mariani, a French member of the European Parliament, also condemned the bloc's decision to expand sanctions, saying that the bloc responded in its usual manner.

"Since 2014 and the return of Crimea to Russia, the EU has proved incapable of adopting any approach other than that of ineffective sanctions, which it cannot get out of. It becomes ridiculous. These so-called sanctions are simply a hostile gesture that does absolutely nothing for anyone, other than increase tensions," Mariani told Sputnik.

According to the lawmaker, the new US administration expects Europeans to align themselves with Washington's stance on Moscow, which is much more aggressive than that of Trump.

"I do not think that is a starting point for Biden, before entering into a negotiation with Moscow. I am worried like many observers. We are witnessing a slow escalation in tension which is bad for the world," Mariani added.

The politician, at the same time, believes that by sanctioning only four Russian officials, Brussels avoided the worst.

"It was a great art to reconcile the points of view. I hope there will be no economic sanction. As long as it is only about lists of 'persona non grata' in Europe, to which the Russians respond with an identical list of Europeans banned from entering Russia, it is not really embarrassing," Mariani said.

Commenting on the situation around the Nord Stream 2 project, the lawmaker said that it would be completed even though France asked Germany to abandon it last month.