EU set to agree sanctions over Russia, Myanmar crackdowns at Feb 22 meet

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(From left to right) Ukrainian Prime Minister and head of the country’s delegation Denys Shmyhal, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel and European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi speak during a press conference after an EU-Ukraine Association Council meeting on February 11 in Brussels. AFP

EU foreign ministers were expected on February 22 to approve sanctions against those behind Russia’s crackdown on Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and his supporters, as well as those responsible for the coup in Myanmar.

The top diplomats from the 27-nation bloc meet in Brussels for talks that will also include a wide-ranging videoconference with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

But it will be responses to a raft of abuses in various regions that will dominate, with Venezuelan authorities also in the crosshairs over widely-criticised elections last year.

The move to target the Kremlin comes two weeks after EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was caught in a diplomatic ambush in Moscow that enraged member states.

Capitals are eyeing using the EU’s new human rights sanctions regime for the first time to hit individuals responsible for the clampdown with asset freezes and visa bans, diplomats said.

A senior European diplomat said: “I expect a political agreement to be reached.

“Then experts from the member states should work on the names.”

Waves of sanctions

Late on February 21, two of Navalny’s closest allies met in Brussels with eight EU foreign ministers and several EU ambassadors ahead of February 22’s meeting.

Leonid Volkov, one of the allies, said they “talked about targeted personal sanctions against Putin’s closest allies and people who are guilty of major human rights violations”.

But European diplomats say only those directly implicated in Russia’s treatment of Navalny can be targeted because the list needs to stand up to any challenge in court.

The February 21 meeting was organised by Lithuania, whose foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, did not identify the other EU participants.

“The biggest hope for tomorrow [February 22] is that we will make a unanimous decision about the list” of people to be sanctioned, Landsbergis said.

The mood towards Moscow has hardened in the wake of Borrell’s disastrous trip to Russia, during which Moscow announced the expulsion of three European diplomats and rebuffed talk of cooperation.

The EU has already hit Russia with waves of sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s fuelling of the war in Ukraine.

The bloc in October slapped six officials on a blacklist over the poisoning of Navalny with Novichok, a nerve agent.

President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic critic was this month jailed for almost three years after returning to Russia following treatment in Germany.

His sentencing sparked nationwide protests that saw baton-wielding security forces detain thousands.

The EU also appears to be gearing up to hit Myanmar’s military with targeted punishment after it seized power this month and launched an increasingly deadly bid to crush protests.

Borrell on February 20 condemned the violence against peaceful rallies after two demonstrators were killed and said EU foreign ministers would “take appropriate decisions”.

A senior EU official said February 22’s meeting would adopt conclusions that “foresee maybe to take some particular measures on some of the members of the military”.

In addition to those measures, the official said ministers were expected to place some 30 members of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime on a blacklist.

The listings would target those involved in December elections the EU refused to recognise and broader human rights abuses, the official said.

Ministers are also set to discuss China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and see if the EU needs to beef up its response as Beijing tightens it grip.