Protests abandoned for now, Russian opposition focuses on leveraging Europe against Putin
Moscow — Russia's foreign ministry accused Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny's allies of treachery on Tuesday for discussing possible sanctions against Russia with other countries. The accusation of treason was levelled as the opposition leader's imprisonment drove an increasingly large wedge between Moscow and its European Union neighbors.
Navalny, 44, was arrested last month immediately upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from poisoning with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. Last week he was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison on charges he's dismissed as politically motivated.
This week two of Navalny's prominent allies urged Western envoys during a video call to impose sanctions on senior Russian business and political figures, whom they described as members of President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, as wells as judges and senior security officials.
"These are by no means sanctions against Russia. These are sanctions against wallets and propagandists, the closest circle and pillars of Vladimir Putin," Leonid Volkov, a close Navalny associate who lives in exile outside Russia but took part in the call, wrote on social media.
Representatives from Britain, the U.S., Canada and Ukraine were involved in the two-hour discussion convened by Poland, according to a report by the French news agency AFP.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has repeatedly criticized Navalny's allies as "agents of influence" and "traitors" acting on behalf of the NATO military alliance. She claimed they had received instructions on how to disrupt Russian politics during Monday's video call.
Germany, Poland and Sweden announced on Monday that senior Russian diplomats would be expelled from those countries in a tit-for-tat response to the Kremlin's expulsion of three European diplomats. The EU states made no bones about it being retaliation for Moscow's decision last week to expel envoys from the three countries, whom the Kremlin accused of participating in huge protests in support of Navalny last month.
The European countries all denied that their ambassadors in Moscow had joined the protests.
Russia called the expulsion of its diplomats in response "unfounded."
The Russian foreign ministry announced the European envoys were being booted out on the same day that EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visited Moscow and met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Borrell said he'd learned of the expulsions via social media.
Some members of the European Parliament even called for Borrell's resignation after the visit, given the embarrassing timing of his handshake with Lavrov as EU envoys were being ordered to pack their bags.
On Tuesday, Borrell said the EU was preparing to take action.
"It will be for the member states to decide the next step, but yes this could include sanctions, and I will put forward concrete proposals," he said.
EU foreign ministers are to meet later this month to consider their response to Navalny's conviction last week. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Biden administration will coordinate with its allies to hold the Kremlin accountable.
Thousands of people have been detained by police at nationwide anti-Putin rallies in recent weeks following Navalny's arrest upon his return to Russia from Germany. Many detainees have complained of harsh treatment by the police in custody.
Last week Navalny's team said that they would put mass-street demonstrations on hold until the spring, but would continue to push other countries to increase pressure on Russia's government.
On Tuesday, Volkov called on Navalny's supporters across the country to stage individual protests on Valentine's Day, this Sunday, lighting their cell phones up for 15 minutes outside their homes.
He said the motto of the protest would be, "Love is stronger than fear."
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