Russia hits more EU officials with entry bans over Navalny

MOSCOW (AP) — Moscow is expanding the list of European officials barred from entering Russia in response to the European Union’s sanctions over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday.

The move comes a day after Navalny, a longtime adversary of President Vladimir Putin, released a recording of a phone call he said he made to an alleged state security operative — who was identified by media as a member of a team that has reportedly trailed the politician for years. In the recording, the man indicated his involvement in covering up the supposed poisoning and revealed some details of the alleged operation.

In October, the EU imposed sanctions on six Russian officials and a state research institute over what German authorities said was a poisoning in Russia with a nerve agent.

In a statement Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the sanctions “a confrontational political decision” and announced that it was expanding “the list of representatives of EU member states and institutions who will be denied entry to the Russian Federation.”

The Ministry didn’t reveal either the names of the EU officials or the exact number who would be barred from Russia. But it did say that the list includes “those who are responsible for promoting anti-Russian sanctions initiatives” in the 27-member bloc.

Navalny fell sick during the Aug. 20 flight in Russia and was flown to Berlin while still in a coma for treatment two days later. Labs in Germany, France and Sweden, and tests by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established that he was exposed to a Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent.

Diplomatic missions of the three countries, as well as the Delegation of the EU to Russia, have been notified of the measures taken in response to the EU sanctions, the Ministry said.

According to the German Foreign Ministry, the German chargée d’affaires in Moscow was told that Russia has issued entry bans against “German government agencies” but no further details were given.

The ministry said that the pattern of Russian retaliatory measures is familiar, but it still considers them “unjustified.” It reiterated the German position that the Navalny case is not a bilateral matter, but has a wider international import due to the use of a chemical agent. It renewed calls for Russia to clear up what happened, and said that Moscow so far has shown no readiness to do so.

Last week, a joint investigation by the research group Bellingcat and several media outlets alleged that operatives from Russia’s FSB domestic security agency followed Navalny during his trips since 2017. The investigation said the operatives “specialized training in chemical weapons, chemistry and medicine,” and some of them were “in the vicinity” of Navalny in the timeframe “during which he was poisoned.”

Navalny, who is currently convalescing in Germany, said the report proved beyond doubt that FSB operatives tried to kill him on Putin’s orders. The video of his phone call to one of the alleged operatives, dismissed by the FSB as a fake, received nearly 13 million views on YouTube 22 hours after it was posted.

Russian authorities have repeatedly denied any involvement. Putin charged last week that the investigation relied on data provided by U.S. spy agencies and rejected the allegations.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday said that “neither the Kremlin, nor anyone can speak definitively about some kind of poisoning,” because Russia hasn’t received any “information” to that effect from the three countries or the OPCW.

Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.