BRUSSELS, Feb 9 (Reuters) – The European Union’s top diplomat warned Moscow on Tuesday it could face new sanctions over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, describing the government of President Vladimir Putin as “merciless”, authoritarian and afraid of democracy.
Josep Borrell said his visit last Friday to Moscow had cemented his view that Russia wanted to break away from Europe and divide the West, in a speech marking the EU’s harshest criticism of Moscow since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“The Russian government is going down a worrisome authoritarian route,” said Borrell, who pleaded for Navalny’s release in Moscow and sought in vain to visit him in prison.
“There seems to be almost no room for the development of democratic alternatives … they are merciless in stifling any such attempts,” he told the European Parliament, saying that he believed the Kremlin saw democracy as an “existential threat”.
Borrell’s remarks suggested a hardening of EU attitudes to Russia, a big energy provider to Europe, after years of seeking better ties despite Western sanctions imposed in 2014.
“Russia seeks to divide us,” Borrell said.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of Russia’s international affairs committee with the upper house of parliament, said Borrell’s statement should be deemed emotional amid the economic crisis and the novel coronavirus pandemic in Europe.
“For some reason, the European Union thinks that it can meddle in our internal affairs,” Dzhabarov said on state TV.
Russia is used to living under sanctions, Dzhabarov said, adding that Europe will be interested in cooperating with Russia to overcome its economic issues.
A spokesman for European Council President Charles Michel, who coordinates EU leaders, issued a statement in support of Borrell, accusing Moscow of an “aggressive stance” during his visit. “The EU will not be intimidated,” the spokesman said.
Navalny was arrested in January after returning to Russia for the first time since being poisoned last August in Siberia with what many Western countries said was a nerve agent.
Navalny blamed Putin for the attack but the Kremlin has dismissed the accusations and questioned whether the opposition politician was really poisoned. His arrest and imprisonment have caused big protests in Russia.
During Borrell’s talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, which Borrell described as heated, Moscow expelled three EU diplomats – representatives of Germany, Poland and Sweden – provoking tit-for-tat expulsions by Berlin, Warsaw and Stockholm.
Borrell said he had only learned about the expulsions from Russia via social media during his visit, which included a news conference in which Lavrov chided the EU as “an unreliable partner”.
Many EU lawmakers said the Kremlin had wanted to try to humiliate Borrell on Friday in Moscow to send a message that the West should stay out of Russian domestic affairs. At least 81 deputies have called for Borrell’s resignation.
Borrell said targeted sanctions were now an option for Russia, but it was up to EU states to decide next policy steps.
Two allies of Navalny, Vladimir Ashurkov and Leonid Volkov joined a video call with EU states and envoys from Britain, the United States, Canada and Ukraine to propose senior figures in business, political, judicial and security circles who could face sanctions, according to two Western diplomats who were on the call.
Moscow on Tuesday denounced the call as treachery.
The two Western diplomats declined to disclose names, but said Volkov and Ashurkov told the call that sanctions should target the assets and freedom to travel of those affected. The aim would be to weaken those who have amassed fortunes and influence while ordinary Russians struggle to make ends meet.
RIA news agency quoted Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying Navalny’s allies had received instructions on how to disrupt Russian politics during Monday’s video call. She described members of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as “agents of influence” acting on behalf of the NATO military alliance. (Additional reporting by Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow; editing by Timothy Heritage, Kevin Liffey and Grant McCool)