EU countries on Thursday began discussing their response to the Novichok poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, but warned it was too early to impose new sanctions until an investigation identified the culprit.
The bloc is scrambling to respond to the latest assassination attempt against a Russian dissident, after Germany said Navalny had been poisoned with the military grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union and used notoriously against a former double agent in England in 2018.
German officials briefed the other 26 EU countries in Brussels on Navalny, currently being treated in Berlin, as international outrage grew and calls mounted for punitive action against Moscow.
Russia must carry out a “thorough, transparent” investigation into the poisoning of 44-year-old Navalny, the latest in a long line of defectors and critics of President Vladimir Putin to be poisoned in suspicious circumstances, EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano said.
“We want to see those responsible brought to justice, but for that the investigation needs to be launched and needs to bring results,” Stano told reporters in Brussels when asked whether sanctions could be imposed in retaliation.
“We are not there yet so it’s difficult to speak about punishment if you don’t have the (person) responsible.”
Moscow has said it was ready to cooperate with Germany, but it has already insisted there is no reason to blame the Russian state.
Stano said the EU would not pre-empt any investigation, but cast doubt on the chances of a Russian probe coming up with substantial results.
“I would only recall from the past that Mr Navalny is not the first one who became victim of such cowardly and inhumane attack or assassination attempt,” Stano said.
“We have seen other people being killed in Russia, other opposition voices being silenced: Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsy, Boris Nemtsov. Did we have satisfactory results from the investigation of their assassinations? The track record is not very satisfactory.”
The Navalny poisoning bears chilling echoes of the bid to murder ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, southwest England, using a Novichok nerve agent, blamed on Russian intelligence agents.
READ: Air ambulance flies Russian opposition leader Navalny to Germany
The Skripals spent days in a coma before recovering but a local resident died after picking up a discarded perfume bottle allegedly used to carry the poison.
The United States, EU members, NATO and other nations expelled over 150 Russian diplomats in a coordinated action against Moscow over the Skripal case, leading to tit-for-tat reactions from Moscow.
Diplomatic expulsions are a quicker response than sanctions, which take weeks if not months to grind through the wheels of the Brussels bureaucracy.
Each proposed sanction is carefully examined by EU lawyers to ensure it is properly backed up by solid, reliable evidence that will stand up to scrutiny in the European Court of Justice.
In the Skripal case, the EU took 10 months to finally impose sanctions on the two most senior officers in Russian military intelligence, as well as the two agents accused of carrying out the attack.
The bloc already has sweeping sanctions in place targeting whole sectors of the Russian economy, imposed in 2014 over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
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