The EU has imposed sanctions on six top Russian officials over their alleged involvement in the chemical weapon poisoning of the high-profile opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
Figures from the Kremlin, Russia’s defence ministry and domestic intelligence agency will be subject to travel bans and asset freezes after international experts concluded that Mr Navalny had been targeted with a novichok nerve agent.
The affair has heightened tensions between the EU and Russia, setting back efforts by countries including France and Finland to push for greater engagement with Moscow in the face of opposition from Baltic states and Poland.
Mr Navalny fell unconscious on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow in August and was later flown to Berlin’s Charité hospital, where he spent several weeks in a coma.
Specialist laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden independently found traces of novichok — the poison used in 2018 against former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury — in Mr Navalny’s system.
After his discharge from hospital last month, Mr Navalny said the use of novichok pointed to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in his poisoning.
Moscow claims it found no traces of toxic substances during the two days Mr Navalny spent in a Siberian hospital and said his claims were “absolutely groundless and unacceptable”.
Those named by the EU on Thursday include Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, as well as Sergei Kiriyenko and Andrei Yarin, Mr Putin’s top domestic policy officials.
Mr Bortnikov was already under EU sanctions for his role in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The other three officials are Aleksei Krivoruchko and Pavel Popov, both deputy defence ministers, and Sergei Menyaylo, presidential envoy to the Siberian federal district.
The EU also imposed sanctions against Yevgeny Prigozhin, a caterer known as “Putin’s chef” who funds the infamous St Petersburg troll farm and the Wagner mercenary army, for allegedly violating an arms embargo in Libya and thus threatening “the country’s peace, stability and security”.
The EU did not produce any evidence the men were involved but said it was “reasonable to conclude” the poisoning “was only possible with the consent” of the Kremlin and the security services, which closely surveilled Mr Navalny during his trip to Siberia.
Russian officials have floated contradictory theories for Mr Navalny’s illness, including that he fell into a diabetic coma, was poisoned by the CIA in a plot to smear Russia, or somehow manufactured and ingested novichok himself.
The EU has also imposed sanctions on the State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology in Moscow, which it said has responsibility for destroying Soviet-era chemical weapons stocks and had also previously developed novichok compounds.
“This toxic agent is accessible only to State authorities in the Russian Federation,” the EU said in its announcement on Thursday. “The deployment of a toxic nerve agent of the novichok group would therefore only be possible due to the failure of the Institute to carry out its responsibility to destroy the stockpiles of chemical weapons.”
The measures imposed under a special EU chemical weapons sanctions system set up in 2018 will be largely symbolic if the individuals targeted do not travel to the EU or hold wealth in their own names there.
They come after the EU last year imposed sanctions on top Russian military intelligence officials over the Skripal case.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Mr Putin, told reporters on Thursday that the EU move on the Navalny case “had harmed relations with our country”.
Mr Peskov — who refuses to mention Mr Navalny by name and refers to him as the “Berlin patient” — expressed “regret” over “the decision to make EU relations with Moscow dependent on the person Europe considers to be the leader of some sort of opposition”, according to Interfax.
Russia plans to “analyse the situation and act in accordance with its own interests” in response, Mr Peskov added.