EU diplomats discussed slapping sanctions on the Kremlin after pressure from several capitals over the arrest of opposition figure Alexey Navalny, but decided it was "premature" to impose the punitive measures.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell will visit Moscow early next month to press the Kremlin on the arrest of Alexey Navalny, diplomats have said, as Brussels weighs fresh sanctions.
"Borrell will go to Moscow in early February to deliver a clear message from the EU," a senior diplomat told AFP, despite earlier calls from several member states for the trip to be scrapped.
The visit was confirmed during a meeting in Brussels where foreign ministers from the 27 nations debated their response to the arrest of Kremlin critic Navalny and crackdown on demonstrators.
"Sanctions are a possible tool, but it is necessary to wait to see what happens in Moscow," a second diplomat said.
Following unfolding events in #Russia with concern. I deplore widespread detentions, disproportionate use of force, cutting down internet and phone connections.— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) January 23, 2021
We will discuss on Monday next steps with EU Foreign Ministers #FAC
Extended prison term?
European diplomats had earlier said Brussels was expected to hold off on sanctions until Navalny goes to court on February 2 to see if the Kremlin puts him behind bars for an extended term.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis insisted as he entered Monday's meeting that the bloc "needs to send a very clear and decisive message that this is not acceptable."
Borrell has insisted on sticking to his planned trip, which would be the first to Moscow by an EU foreign policy chief since 2017, despite opposition from several countries.
Diplomats argued that the Kremlin could use the visit to show the EU is continuing with "business as normal" despite the clampdown on the opposition.
In October, the bloc put six senior Russian officials on an assets freeze and travel ban blacklist over the "assassination attempt" on Navalny.
A suggestion: the next Nobel Peace Prize recipient ought to be Alexei Navalny for advocating peaceful protest against corruption in Putin’s Russia. Doing so would not only be right on the merits but would provide some much needed protection & a boost to Navalny & his supporters.— Richard N. Haass (@RichardHaass) January 25, 2021
A senior aide to Navalny called on Monday for fresh anti-government demonstrations this weekend, days after tens of thousands rallied across Russia to denounce Kremlin rule.
Leonid Volkov, the head of the opposition politician's regional network, called on Twitter for Russians across the country to take to the streets on Sunday "for Navalny's freedom, for freedom for all, and for justice."
Volkov called on Russians to rally again to put pressure on the authorities to release Navalny before he is due in court on February 2 on charges of breaking the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence.
The anti-corruption campaigner is facing three-and-a-half years in jail for breaching the conditions of an earlier suspended sentence while recovering in Germany from a near-fatal poisoning with a Novichok nerve agent.
Russian police on Saturday detained more than 3,500 people, a record for a single day, at rallies in over 100 cities across the country where demonstrators were calling for Navalny's release and protesting the government.
The EU has called for the immediate release of Navalny and of peaceful protesters detained during the nationwide rallies.