At a Foreign Affairs Council meeting, European Union foreign ministers are expected to weigh new sanctions against Russia for the imprisonment of Alexey Navalny, consider penalizing Myanmar officials in the wake of the recent coup and discuss efforts to save the endangered 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
High-level diplomats from the 27-nation bloc will meet at the EU’s headquarters in Brussels on Monday for talks, which will also include a video conference with new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Ahead of the meeting, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged his EU counterparts to endorse the preparation of additional sanctions against Russia.
Diplomats have said the bloc is preparing to prepare travel bans and asset freezes against allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to Navalny’s jail, but they appear unlikely to impose restrictions to oligarchs close to Putin, as the Kremlin critic requested.
Navalny, 44, has been imprisoned in Russia since his arrest on January 17, when he returned from Berlin to Moscow. He had been treated in the German capital following an alleged poisoning attack last year, which he attributed to Russian officials. Moscow denies any involvement in the August 2020 incident.
He was jailed on February 2 for almost three years for alleged parole violations on a suspended sentence linked to an embezzlement case in 2014. Navalny insists the case against him was politically motivated.
His imprisonment fueled anti-government protests nationwide.
“I support the order to prepare additional sanctions, lists of specific people,” Maas said arriving for the talks on Monday.
A final decision on sanctions is expected to be taken by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels in mid-March.
But Maas also called on EU foreign ministers to “discuss how to maintain a constructive dialogue with Russia, even when relations are certainly at their lowest.”
Russia, for its part, has said it is ready to retaliate if the EU takes punitive action.
EU-Russia relations at the “ low point ”
Monday’s meeting comes two weeks after EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell made a rare visit to Russia for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a move that has prompted condemnation from some EU members.
During Borrell’s visit, Russia announced the expulsion of diplomats from Sweden, Germany and Poland, accusing them of participating in pro-Navalny protests.
Sweden, Germany and Poland have taken tit-for-tat retaliatory measures.
The EU has already hit Russia with sanctions – on the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the war in Ukraine, and in October it blacklisted six officials over the alleged poisoning of Navalny.
Dominic Kane of Al Jazeera, who reports from Berlin, said that further sanctions against Russia would mark a “rise in pressure”.
Iran and Myanmar in the spotlight
The Iran nuclear deal and the situation in Myanmar should also be on the agenda.
Signed in Vienna in 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, saw Iran cut back its nuclear program in exchange for a gradual relaxation of international sanctions.
“The position of the EU is that it wants any kind of rapprochement, any kind of detente,” said Dominic Kane of Al Jazeera. “Anything that can keep the agreement alive and then strengthen it, the EU wants to be part of.”
The deal was rocked by former US President Donald Trump’s decision to formally withdraw from the deal in 2018 and reimpose sanctions on Iran. Tehran has gradually reduced its commitments in response.
US President Joe Biden’s administration says it is ready to talk about return to deal, but Tehran insists US must reverse sanctions first, while Washington says Tehran must return first to respect.
EU foreign ministers are also expected to decide whether to sanction people in Myanmar in response to the military takeover.
Germany Maas said the bloc was “not ready to stand by and watch” the situation unfold, as Myanmar authorities deploy increasingly harsh tactics to try to crush protests against the coup.
“We will use all diplomatic channels to push for de-escalation in Myanmar, but at the same time, as a last resort, will prepare sanctions against the military regime in Myanmar,” he added.
Maas’ comments came after Borrell on Saturday condemned violence against peaceful gatherings, in which three protesters were killed.