Sunday

25th Jul 2021

Who are the EU's new Russian deplorables?

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin (l) with national guard director Victor Zolotov (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Four Russians are about to join an EU list of the world's worst human rights abusers, but who are they?

EU states' ambassadors, on Wednesday (24 February), signed off a political deal to blacklist individuals linked to the jailing of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

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  • Putin with Russian investigative committee chairman Alexander Bastrykin (Photo: kremlin.ru)

They intend to impose visa-bans and asset-freezes on four officials - Alexander Bastrykin, Alexander Kalashnikov, Igor Krasnov, and Victor Zolotov - according to a leak to the Reuters news agency.

None of them are well known, unlike those whom Navalny's people wanted to see targeted, such as Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch and UK football club owner.

But at least one of the EU-four - Zolotov - is a close associate of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

They became friends in St. Petersburg, when Zolotov was a bodyguard for former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and have practiced judo together.

Zolotov is trusted with Putin's personal security in his role as director of the 'Rosgvardiya' national-guard service.

And his family has become one of the richest in Russia in the real-estate sector.

Bastrykin, the chairman of Russia's investigative committee, is said by Russian émigrés in London to be second after Zolotov in terms of Putin's favour out of the EU-four.

Krasnov, the prosecutor general, is an up-and-coming figure, whose predecessor, Yuri Chaika, used the same office to become one of the most powerful men in Russia.

But even Russia experts know almost nothing about Kalashnikov, the director of Russia's prisons, except that he worked for the FSB intelligence service most of his life.

The EU plan is to fast-track the Russia sanctions by 5 March under Europe's Magnitsky Act, a recently created register of the world's worst human rights abusers, named informally after a late Russian dissident.

The EU intends to add other names later, potentially from China, Myanmar, and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the Reuters leak on the four Russians has prompted debate on whether EU foreign relations chief, Josep Borrell, who proposed the names, was sending the right message to Moscow.

"All of them are very senior and Putin's trusted friends," Ivan Cherkasov, a Russian émigré in London told EUobserver.

"Good to see the EU biting where it hurts," an EU diplomat said.

None of the four Russians are known to travel much to the EU or to have financial assets in Europe, though Bastrykin used to own real estate in the Czech Republic.

But even if the EU visa-bans and asset-freezes did not "bite" them directly, the stigma of EU sanctions is an irritant, which stays online for ever.

Show of weakness?

For another diplomat, from a Russia-neighbouring EU country, Borrell's four names were a dangerously weak message to Putin, however.

And if Russia felt it could act with impunity, then it might escalate fighting in eastern Ukraine in spring in an asymmetrical reaction, the EU diplomat said.

"I wouldn't rule it out. Russia sees sanctions as a hostile act and they often react to threats by attacking," he said.

"It's a message that they are getting away with this [Navalny's jailing], which ... can encourage them to continue aggressions," Eerik-Niiles Kross, an Estonian MP and former national intelligence coordinator, also said.

"Overall, four officials is a joke, even if Zolotov and Bastrykin are big fish," Kross said, calling Borrell's list a "face-saving operation".

For Nikolai Petrov, a Kremlinologist at British think-tank Chatham House, the truth lay somewhere in between.

"All of them [the four Russians to be listed] are close to Putin and play very important roles," Petrov told EUobserver.

But the EU sanctions were "symbolic" and meant "to be rather comfortable for both sides ... they will be taken by the Kremlin as a sign that it's business as usual in terms of cooperation with the European Union," Petrov said.

Part of the new normality is Russia's anti-EU propaganda.

And Petrov predicted Putin would denounce the EU sanctions as a Western attack on Russia's "glory", while the four Russian officials would wear them as a badge of loyalty.

Status quo

But quietly completing a new gas pipeline to Germany, called Nord Stream 2, is also part of EU-Russia calculations on "business as usual".

And the status quo in Ukraine is amenable to Putin's interests, Petrov said.

"They [the Russians] don't need to make any radical moves in Ukraine," he noted.

"Russia is quite comfortable having its finger in Ukraine's wound," he said, referring to Russian occupying forces in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

"It can intensify conflict if needed, but if not needed, Russia would not be eager to take on the burden of recovery of this troubled region," by fully conquering it, Petrov said.

US deaf to Germany on Russia pipeline

Any firm issuing safety certificates for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will find itself in US sanctions crosshairs, the state department has warned.

Russia humiliates Borrell in Moscow

Russia expelled European diplomats and harangued the EU on human rights, while Borrell went off-script on Cuba in Moscow on Friday.

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