Russia ready to cut ties with EU over sanctions

European states are considering punitive measures over jailing of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov takes part in a ceremony marking Diplomats' Day in Moscow on February 10, 2021. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Russian Foreign Ministry / handout " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow was ready to sever ties with the European Union if the bloc hits it with economic sanctions, according to extracts from an interview posted on the ministry's website on Friday.

Germany described Mr Lavrov's comments as "disconcerting and incomprehensible".

Relations between Russia and the West are under renewed pressure over the arrest and jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, which sparked talk of possible new sanctions.

Three European diplomats told Reuters on Thursday that the European Union was likely to impose travel bans and asset freezes on allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, possibly as soon as this month, after France and Germany signalled their willingness to move ahead.

Pressure for sanctions has grown since Moscow infuriated European nations last week by expelling German, Polish and Swedish diplomats without telling the EU's foreign policy chief, who was in Moscow for a visit. Paris and Berlin say there must be a response.

European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell attends a news conference following a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia February 5, 2021. Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT.

Mr Lavrov was asked in an interview to be published in full later on Friday whether Moscow would now move towards cutting ties with the EU itself.

"We proceed from the fact that we're ready ... In the event that we again see sanctions imposed in some sectors that create risks for our economy, including in the most sensitive spheres," Mr Lavrov said.

"We don't want to isolate ourselves from global life, but we have to be ready for that. If you want peace then prepare for war."

EU ambassadors discussed the punitive measures at a meeting on Wednesday, with no objections raised by member states, diplomats familiar with the talks told Bloomberg.

The discussion came after EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell weathered intense criticism over his trip to Moscow, when Mr Lavrov used a joint press conference to disparage the bloc, criticising the EU as an unreliable partner. Russia simultaneously announced that it would expel three diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden for their “recorded participation” in protests against the imprisonment of Mr Navalny. The EU countries reciprocated in kind.

After returning from Moscow, Mr Borrell said that "Europe and Russia are drifting apart".

At Wednesday’s meeting, at least 10 ambassadors expressed their disappointment at how Mr Borrell’s visit went, according to a diplomatic note seen by Bloomberg. Most of the same governments welcomed news that the discussion was shifting to tangible action, including sanctions.

The note added that the EU’s foreign ministers could take an initial decision on any restrictive measures when they meet on February 22. The EU’s 27 leaders will also discuss relations with Russia next month. Any decision to apply new sanctions would require unanimity.

A senior Navalny ally urged the EU to show “political will” as it considers punitive measures. “The EU doesn’t need to build a legal case that can be defended in court – sanctions are a political decision,” said Vladimir Ashurkov. “If not now, then when?”

Mr Ashurkov, who is based in London, took part in a video call with representatives of EU nations, the UK and US on Monday. He also sent a sanctions list of 35 Russians including senior officials, state bankers and billionaire oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov, to UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

“If eight are sanctioned, that would be a coup in itself, if 35 are sanctioned that would be huge leap,” Mr Ashurkov said.

A spokesman for Mr Abramovich said there was "no foundation" for the claims Mr Ashurkov made about the tycoons in his list. A representative for Mr Usmanov declined to comment.

Mr Navalny, 44, was detained in mid-January upon his return from Germany, where he was treated for the poisoning that he and western nations blamed on Russia's Federal Security Service. The Kremlin denied any role in the nerve-agent attack.

A Moscow court on February 2 sentenced Mr Navalny to two years and eight months in prison for breaching probation terms of a previous, suspended fraud conviction. His jailing sparked the biggest anti-Putin protests in years and a violent crackdown, with 11,000 arrests and the prosecution of Navalny aides. Russia rejected EU and US calls to free him.