BRUSSELS – The European Union's foreign ministers on Monday condemned the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the detention of thousands during protests backing the most well-known critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin but stopped short of weighing new sanctions against Russia.
“The Council considered it completely unacceptable, condemned the mass detentions, and the police brutality over the weekend,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing the meeting in Brussels. “We call on Russia for the release of Mr. Navalny and those detained.”
Navalny was arrested earlier this month when he returned to Moscow after spending months in Germany recovering from a poisoning in Russia with what experts say was the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.
More than 3,700 people were detained across Russia during Saturday's nationwide protests in support of Navalny, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors political arrests. The group said the number was a record in its nine years of work. More than 1,400 of the detentions occurred in Moscow alone — also a record, according to Russian media.
Asked whether the EU ministers had discussed new sanctions against Russia, Borrell said “there has not been any concrete proposal on the table,” but added that the ministers are "ready to act, depending on the circumstances.”
The EU already imposed sanctions in October on six Russian officials and a state research institute over Navalny’s poisoning.
Borrell said he would visit Moscow next week for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The EU's top diplomat said the long-standing invitation from Lavrov would be a good opportunity to discuss “all relevant issues,” and help prepare for a debate on Russia ties between EU leaders in March.
When it was suggested that he could make his visit conditional on meeting Navalny, Borrell said: "You don’t do things this way."
On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed concern about what he called Russia’s “authoritarian drift." He told France-Inter radio that “all light must be shed” on Navalny’s poisoning.
“This was an assassination attempt,” Le Drian said.
Saturday's protests attracted thousands of people in major Russian cities, including an estimated 15,000 in Moscow. As they unfolded, the U.S. embassy spokeswoman in the city, Rebecca Ross, said on Twitter that the United States “supports the right of all people to peaceful protest, freedom of expression. Steps being taken by Russian authorities are suppressing those rights.”
The embassy also tweeted a State Department statement calling for Navalny’s release.
Putin’s spokesman said the statements interfered in the country’s domestic affairs and encouraged Russians to break the law.