E.U. Condemns Arrest of Navalny and Supporters but Takes No Action Yet

BRUSSELS — Despite pressure from some European Union countries on Monday to sanction Russia further after the arrest of the Kremlin critic Aleksei A. Navalny and thousands of his supporters, the bloc’s top foreign policy official will go ahead with a visit to Moscow early next month and meet with Russian officials first.

The official, Josep Borrell Fontelles, will press the Russian government to release Mr. Navalny, according to diplomats in Brussels, and if not, new sanctions are possible. The decision came during a rare, in-person meeting of the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers in Brussels.

Mr. Borrell’s trip to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, is expected after Feb. 2, when Mr. Navalny faces a court hearing that could send him to prison for several years. His supporters have called for people to take to the streets again on Sunday, two days before the hearing.

In a news conference, Mr. Borrell said the foreign ministers had condemned the Russian crackdown on Mr. Navalny and his supporters and called for their release. He said he would be pleased to meet Mr. Navalny, and his situation would be a topic of discussion during his visit, but the trip was primarily to discuss strategic relations with Russia before a summit of European leaders in March.

European leaders are “ready to react’’ and to act “according to circumstances,’’ Mr. Borrell said. While the foreign ministers differed about how to respond to Moscow, there were no concrete proposals made, so there was no need to take decisions now, he said.

Tens of thousands of Russians rallied for Mr. Navalny in the streets of more than 100 Russian cities last Saturday in the biggest demonstrations the country had seen since at least 2017. Several thousand were arrested and sometimes beaten, bringing protests from the new Biden administration as well as from European countries.

The European diplomats discussed imposing fresh sanctions on Russia on Monday after pressure from several capitals for a tough line, but decided to wait to see what happens to Mr. Navalny and the outcome of Mr. Borrell’s visit.

In October, the European Union imposed sanctions on six Russian officials and a state research institute over the poisoning of Mr. Navalny in August with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent created in Russia during the Soviet era.

In the latest sign of how Mr. Navalny’s campaign has shaken the Kremlin, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Monday took the unusual step of responding personally. Mr. Putin denied an extensive report by Mr. Navalny and his team that was released last week, after he was jailed, about the president’s purported “palace” on the Black Sea. The video has been viewed more than 86 million times on YouTube, underscoring the Kremlin’s vulnerability on the internet, which is mostly uncensored in Russia.

“Nothing that is described as my property there ever belonged to me or my close relatives, and never did,” Mr. Putin said in a televised video conference with university students. The video alleged that the vast, lavish property, said to include vineyards and an underground hockey rink, was controlled by friends and close associates of Mr. Putin who were holding it for him.

Mr. Putin said he had no time to watch Mr. Navalny’s 113-minute film in full, but had viewed excerpts. He dismissed it by quoting a line from “The Twelve Chairs,” an early Soviet novel: “Girls, this is boring.” Mr. Putin has used the line at least once before — to dismiss U.S. allegations of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government in 2017.

Threats of new sanctions are sure to be used by Russia’s state media to describe Mr. Navalny as a plant or tool of the West. Over the weekend, television news reports prominently featured tweets by Mr. Borrell and other Western officials as evidence that Mr. Navalny was working against Russian interests.

On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the United States ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, to criticize the American response to the pro-Navalny protests. Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, said that the support that the State Department had voiced for Mr. Navalny amounted to “direct interference in the domestic affairs of our country.”

The new attention on Russia extends to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, owned by the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom and 94 percent finished, that the United States is trying to stop through sanctions imposed on companies helping to lay the last miles of pipes. The Biden administration has confirmed Washington’s opposition to the pipeline on the grounds that it benefits the Russian state, hurts the income of Ukraine and Poland and makes Germany more dependent on Russian natural gas.

The Russians are preparing to lay pipes near Denmark with Russian-owned ships, while Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany continues to insist that the pipeline is a commercial venture and will go ahead, despite the poisoning and arrest of Mr. Navalny.

Berlin is hoping to resolve the problem with Washington through negotiations with the Biden administration, but it is possible that a solution will include at least a temporary suspension of the project.

The European foreign ministers are also under pressure to further sanction Turkey for its violation of waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus with warships and a ship designed to explore for natural gas. They have held off as Germany has tried to get talks going between Turkey and Greece on the dispute, which became dangerously heated last summer and remains volatile.

As the European ministers met on Monday, diplomats from Greece and Turkey were also meeting in Istanbul for the first talks in five years aimed at resolving their longstanding dispute over sea borders. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who had a good relationship with former President Donald J. Trump, is also seeking to establish better relations with the Biden administration.

Even as they sit down to talks, officials disagree on what they will be discussing. Greece wants the conversation limited to the delineation of the countries’ continental shelves and corresponding energy rights — the focus of last summer’s dispute.

But Turkey wants other areas of disagreement on the table, too, including the status of some islands in the Aegean and the rights of Greece’s Muslim minority in Thrace.

At his news conference, Mr. Borrell also said the ministers expected Britain to grant full diplomatic status to E.U. representatives and that they looked forward to working with the new Biden administration.

“Be sure we will coordinate much, much better than in the past,’’ he said.

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels and Anton Troianovsky from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Melissa Eddy from Berlin and Niki Kitsantonis from Athens.

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