European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to prepare sanctions on four senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin in a mainly symbolic response to the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, three EU diplomats said.
The political agreement, which is expected to be formally approved by the EU in March, came after France, Germany, Poland and the Baltic states urged the 27-member bloc to send a message to Putin that debate and protest must be allowed in Russia.
Navalny was arrested after returning to Moscow last month from Germany, where he had been recovering from a near-fatal poisoning in August with what Western nations said was a nerve agent. His arrest sparked nationwide street protests in Russia.
No names were discussed at Monday's EU meeting, but one diplomat said the proposed new travel bans and asset freezes would target, among others, Alexander Bastrykin, whose Investigative Committee handles probes into major crimes and reports directly to Putin.
Bastrykin is already under British human rights sanctions.
Also to be targeted, the diplomat said, is Igor Krasnov, who became Russia's prosecutor-general a year ago in a move seen as giving Putin greater scope to retain influence once his presidential term expires in 2024.
The third official on the draft list is Viktor Zolotov, head of Russia's National Guard, who publicly threatened Navalny with violence in September 2018. The fourth man named by the diplomat is Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the federal prison service.
The sanctions are set to be imposed under a new framework that allows the EU to take measures against human rights violators worldwide.
Separately the EU has already sanctioned six Russians and a state scientific research centre in response to the August poisoning of Navalny.
The proposed new listings fall well short of the demands made by Navalny's allies, who have drawn up a list of 35 people including members of Russia's business elite - the so-called oligarchs - they want to see targeted.
EU governments say sanctions against senior state officials can better withstand legal challenges, while it is more difficult to prove business executives' involvement in any human rights abuses.
Before the EU meeting, Leonid Volkov, a senior Navalny aide, said in Brussels that sanctions against oligarchs might be a way to weaken Putin if they came to feel that association with the president was more of a liability than a source of protection.
But Volkov welcomed Monday's decision: "Even if it's too little ... it's the first time personal sanctions are applied with regard to human rights violations, so it opens a way for further negotiation on this with Europe."
Navalny says the Kremlin was behind last August's poisoning and aimed to kill him, charges it denies. He was jailed on Feb. 2 for violating the terms of parole on what he says was a politically motivated conviction. He lost an appeal on Saturday.
Russia accuses the EU of meddling in its affairs. It leveled the same accusation against the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU body, after it also demanded Navalny's release in a ruling on Feb. 17.
Pressure in Europe for new sanctions has grown since Moscow expelled German, Polish and Swedish diplomats on Feb. 5 without telling the EU's foreign policy chief, who was visiting Moscow at the time.