EU prepares sanctions after Putin's sham election



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EU READIES NEW SANCTIONS OVER NAVALNY’S DEATH: As Vladimir Putin celebrates his sham landslide Russian presidential election “win,”the EU plans to agree new sanctions today against his mafia-like state and security apparatus.

The message is clear: Russia’s ballot ritual was not a free or fair election, with censorship rife, journalists persecuted and opposition candidates either barred, jailed or dead.

Navalny’s ‘killing’: The 27 EU foreign affairs ministers and top diplomat Josep Borrell, who meet in Brussels from 10:30 a.m., will target “individuals and entities” of Putin’s regime such as prison officials, according to diplomats and officials.

“We hope that there will be a political agreement on sanctioning a number of people involved in the … killing of Alexei Navalny,” said a high ranking EU official, in reference to the Russian opposition leader who died in highly suspicious circumstances in an Arctic prison last month, after a previous failed assassination attempt in 2020.

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NO LONGER UNSPEAKABLE: Putin, meanwhile, publicly said Navalny’s name for the first time in years last night, claiming in a campaign victory press conference that he’d agreed to let the opposition leader go in a prisoner exchange. Putin said “some colleagues” had proposed swapping Navalny several days before he died “for some people who are in prison in Western countries.” He said he agreed to the idea, as long as the opposition leader never returned to Russia, “But, unfortunately, what happened happened … It happens. What can you do? That’s life.”

Reminder: Navalny was arrested upon his return to Russia in 2021, five months after being poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent of the Novichok group. Western leaders and Navalny himself blamed Russia’s FSB secret service, acting on Putin’s orders, for the poisoning.

HONORING NAVALNY’S LAST WISH: Thousands of Russians went to polling stations at noon on Sunday, heeding Navalny’s call for a “Noon Against Putin” protest. They formed long queues in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Ekaterinburg, Perm, Chelyabinsk and other cities across Russia.

Worldwide phenomenon: Russian expats also participated in the act of defiance at embassies and consulates around the world. In Berlin, Navalny’s widow Yulia Navalnaya joined thousands of protesters, exiled opposition MPs and others, forming a kilometer-long queue in front of the Russian Embassy, as Spiegel reported. Navalnaya said she had written her husband’s name onto the ballot paper. In Brussels, Denis Leven reports hundreds lined up outside the Russian Embassy to cast their ballots at noon on Sunday, forcing a backlog.

The Kremlin’s explanation for the Noon Against Putin protests: It was simply high voter turnout (or fake news), of course.

IS THIS A BALLOT BOX OR A ZOO? Across Russia at polling stations people dressed in costumes, among them a rabbit, a beaver, a polar bear, a herd of yaks and also a Barbie, presumably to infuse the election with some joy and take attention away from the Noon Against Putin crowd. Russia’s state-run RIA highlighted the work of election observer Kuzya the cat.

None of which distracted from this fact: Putin won a record 87 percent of the vote, on a 73 percent turnout — beating even the most enthusiastic pro-Kremlin predictions. He’ll use the landslide (secured in part with the help of the voting dead) as proof of mass support — but such an absurd election result risks undermining the very political stability Putin craves, writes my colleague Eva Hartog in her essential analysis.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: Here are five scenarios for Russia after Putin’s next term, by Casey Michel.


ALSO ON TODAY’S FAC AGENDA: Ministers will talk Ukraine (they’ll formally sign off on the €5 billion weapons pledge for Kyiv), and the Middle East.

Joining remotely: Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Ministers will have two discussion rounds with Blinken, on Russia and Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war, and, according to officials, also on China.

Sanctions against Hamas and violent Israeli settlers: The EU has prepared a new round of sanctions aimed at Hamas. And following Washington’s lead, the ministers will also decide whether to impose travel bans against several “extremist” settlers, whom the EU and U.S. accuse of attacking and displacing Palestinians in the West Bank.

Freezing the association deal with Israel? Borrell will also ask ministers whether they agree to suspend (partially or totally) the EU-Israel Association Agreement over the rising Gaza death toll and Israel’s failure to allow sufficient humanitarian aid into the strip, diplomats told Playbook.

Free trade lever: The association agreement isn’t just about political cooperation but also includes a free trade deal, which in 2010 was questioned at the EU’s highest court over the risk that Europe might be importing goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.



EUROPE STRIKES MASSIVE €7.4B DEAL WITH EGYPT: EU leaders on Sunday promised to give Egypt some €7.4 billion in grants and loans in an effort to curb irregular migration. The deal was struck after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Cairo with an entourage that included Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Belgian PM Alexander De Croo, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Direct cash transfer: What’s notable is that most of the aid (some €5 billion) will come in the form of a direct transfer to the Egyptian government — unlike other EU money, which is usually disbursed via co-financed projects or NGOs to ensure it reaches its intended recipients. But the €5 billion in soft loans for 2024-2027 will be doled out as “macro-financial assistance” to Egypt’s central bank — which “can be used however the government sees fit,” according to the Commission.

Theory vs. practice: Some aid will be linked to projects, including €100 million for grain storage to counter the impact of Russia’s war on food security, and smaller sums for wastewater treatment and renewable energy plants. Only around €200 million is officially earmarked for “migration management.”

But leaders and officials left little doubt that Egypt is expected to better police its borders and stop migrants from crossing into Europe, in exchange for the overall deal.

ABOARD AIR VON DER LEYEN: Playbook’s own Nick Vinocur came along for the trip to Egypt, and wrote in with this dispatch (he also has a full wrap here).

Dazed and confused: Organization was ropy at the Egypt presidential palace, Nick reports. There were loads of personnel present, but no food for hours. Journalists who were waiting for a chance to question the leaders had to watch the conference on television in Arabic.

We’re not in Kansas any more: When it came time for the leaders to present the deal, there was significant confusion at the door of the room they were in, with the Egyptian personnel at first only wanting to let three journalists per country enter. Belgian diplomats had to lean heavily on the hosts to let more people in. Finally, with the reporters watching on, the leaders lined up in a row and read prepared statements in a highly formal ceremony you don’t see much of in Europe these days.

All aboard: Then, the EU and Belgian staff all piled into a leased Boeing 737-300 for the five-hour flight back to Brussels, with von der Leyen in the first row. Meloni and De Croo stopped to speak to national journalists; not so von der Leyen, who came to Egypt with Bjoern Seibert, Eric Mamer and Gert Jan Koopman, among other senior Commission officials.

**Join us at ChangeNOW, at the Grand Palais Ephémère in Paris from March 25th to 27th. Climate, biodiversity, resources, inclusion: over 200 conferences and 1000 concrete solutions to step into sustainable world. More information.**


HOW THE RIGHT FELL FOR TIKTOK: Europe’s far-right political movement has taken TikTok by storm. Its online stars, most notably France’s Jordan Bardella, appeal to a younger generation of voters — not with nuanced policy positions but with dramatic, polarizing content and often even with no clear politics involved at all, report Clothilde Goujard, Elisa Braun and Mark Scott.

Data review: Clothilde and Hanne Cokelaere reviewed how all 705 members of the European Parliament were present on TikTok between February 15 and March 8 and found 186 active accounts. The Left group and the far-right group Identity and Democracy (ID) have the highest percentages of MEPs on the platform. When it comes to activity, follower counts and liked posts, the ID group outperforms other groups by a lot.

OBAMA TAKES AIM AT EU OVER NATO: Former U.S. President Barack Obama was in Belgium on Sunday for a sold-out event at the SuperNova technology festival organized by Flanders Technology and Innovation. Speaking at the opening of the festival in Flanders, Obama appeared to take aim at Europe’s NATO contributions (or lack thereof): “I’m very proud of how Europe is standing with Ukraine, despite the heavy energy burden,” Obama said, according to Belga. “But there are also certain aspects of NATO that need to be adjusted. Europe has not contributed to its defense as much as its wealth would allow.”


— Foreign Affairs Council 10:30 a.m. Arrivals and doorsteps from 9:30 a.m. … press conference around 6 p.m. Full agenda. Watch.

— European Humanitarian Forum 2024. Opening ceremony with High Representative Josep Borrell and Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič at 9 a.m. Full agenda. Watch.

— European Summit of Regions and Cities in Mons, Belgium. Opening plenary session at 2 p.m. with various speakers, including President of the European Committee of the Regions Vasco Alves Cordeiro, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres (via video) and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola (via video). Full agenda. Watch.

— European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets Swiss President Viola Amherd at 11:30 a.m. Watch.

— European Council President Charles Michel meets World Food Program Executive Director Cindy McCain.

— European Parliament President Roberta Metsola is in Malta; meets speaker of the House of Representatives Angelo Farrugia at 4:30 p.m.

— NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is in Baku, Azerbaijan; meets Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov and Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov. Then travels to Tbilisi, Georgia; meets Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili … meets Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze. Joint press statement with Kobakhidze at 12:25 p.m. Watch.

— Commission Vice President Věra Jourová is in Seoul; speaks at the Third Summit for Democracy … meets Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul.

— Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson is in Sydney, Australia; meets with E-Safety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant … visits the International Centre For Missing and Exploited Children Australia.

— Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius is in Bolivia; meets Bolivian Foreign Minister Celinda Sosa Lunda … meets Environment Minister Rubén Alejandro Méndez.

**Happening this afternoon: POLITICO Live is welcoming a panel of experts at the event “Europe’s road to sustainable competitiveness”. How does the EU’s green agenda impact Europe’s global competitiveness?” Join us online and share your questions!**


WEATHER: High of 14C, partly cloudy.

PILOT STRIKE: Brussels Airlines pilots will strike March 23-27, with a second four-day strike probably taking place from April 6, unless management and unions strike a deal.

SHANGHAI FLIGHTS: Hainan Airlines will begin daily flights between Brussels and Shanghai from early summer on, while Juneyao Air will fly three times per week from July.

HARASSMENT SUPPORT NETWORK: A new Brussels-based NGO launches Tuesday to help and advise people who have suffered workplace harassment. The group will offer psycho-social, pre-legal and career support, co-founder Alejandra Oriola Almarcha told Playbook, to “ensure that everyone is able to fulfill their professional ambitions without the fear of being hurt or assaulted.”

Workplace harassment “is rampant in Brussels, especially in the EU institutions and organizations around it,” said fellow co-founder Myrthe Bovendeaard. She said the initiative had received “overwhelming interest,” proving it was “desperately needed.”

CITY OF SPIES UPDATE: In an attempt to make the EU’s spy capital more secure, Belgian ministers and top officials will this week receive newsecured smartphones and laptops entirely made in Belgium to prevent hacking and eavesdropping.

SAINT-GILLES CRACKDOWN ON DRUG USERS: Police will undertake systemic ID checks in known drug hotspots around Saint-Gilles, including Porte De Hal, Place de Bethléem and Parvis de Saint-Gilles, as part of a crackdown on both dealers and users, Mayor Jean Spinette announced. BRUZZ has more.

UNESCO APPLICATION: Brussels will this month ask UNESCO to recognize the city’s puppet theater and the Grand Place flower carpet as official World Heritage Sites. The outcome of the application won’t be known until the end of next year, though, according to Belga.

COMEDY: Five international comedians from far and wide (including the exotic city of Hasselt) take to the stage on Sunday, March 24 for another edition of Brussels Belly Laughs at la Plume Persée in Ixelles. Get your tickets here.

BIRTHDAYS: MEP Nuno Melo; Former MEPs Marco Dreosto, Bill Etheridge and Anna Hedh; European Parliament’s Chris Williams; Euros/Agency’s Martin Wittenberg; European Commission’s Anna De Marchi; Bloomberg’s Kate Hunter; President of Georgia SalomeZourabichvili; U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

THANKS TO: Nicholas Vinocur, Stuart Lau, Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová and producer Dato Parulava.