By John Irish and Robin Emmott
PARIS (Reuters) - The European Union is likely to impose travel bans and asset freezes on allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, possibly as soon as this month, after France and Germany signalled their willingness to move ahead, three diplomats said.
The sanctions, in response to the jailing of Putin's main domestic critic Alexei Navalny, could be the first to be imposed under a new framework enacted in December, which allows the EU to take measures against human rights violators worldwide.
But Berlin and Paris are still likely to withhold support for tougher steps sought by some European allies, such as halting the huge Nord Stream II gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
Pressure for sanctions has grown since Moscow infuriated European countries last week by expelling German, Polish and Swedish diplomats without telling the EU's foreign policy chief, who was in Moscow for a visit. Paris and Berlin now say there must be a response.
Poland, Baltic countries, the Czech Republic and Romania had already been pushing for sanctions, and the agreement of the EU's two most powerful countries means other EU states are unlikely to block it. The decision could be taken when EU foreign ministers hold their next meeting on Feb. 22.
"We can't avoid sanctions anymore," said a European diplomat. "There is a consensus including in Germany to have sanctions. We can't respond in any other way."
Germany has been vocal in support of Navalny, who was treated there for what Berlin says was poisoning by a Soviet-era nerve agent. But it also has close energy links to Russia.
Russia controls a third of Europe’s gas market. The $11 billion Nord Stream 2 project, led by Russia's state energy company Gazprom, would double the capacity of an existing undersea pipeline which bypasses Ukraine and deprives Kyiv of transit fees.
Berlin, with support from Paris, says sanctions should not target the pipeline, despite U.S. punitive measures against the project and a European Parliament resolution calling for it to be blocked.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German lawmakers on Wednesday that sanctions needed to hit Russians responsible for Navalny's jailing. France's foreign ministry, in response to a Reuters question on whether it backed sanctions, said: "The latest developments, especially with regard to Alexei Navalny's situation, will be fully taken into account. The EU's response must be united, strong and comprehensive".
The EU already imposed economic sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Last year it imposed travel bans and asset freezes on six Russian officials close to Putin over Navalny's poisoning. Moscow has denied blame for Navalny's illness and says it has seen no proof he was poisoned.
When a former Russian spy was poisoned in then-EU member Britain in 2018, the bloc took more than a year to impose sanctions, which targeted lower level military intelligence agents rather than Russia's national leadership. Now it is under pressure to take more forceful measures, and faster.
Two allies of Navalny, Vladimir Ashurkov and Leonid Volkov, joined a video call with EU states and envoys from Britain, the United States, Canada and Ukraine on Monday to propose senior figures in business, political, judicial and security circles who could face sanctions, according to Western diplomats.
(Reporting by John Irish in Paris and Robin Emmott in Brussels, additional reporting by Andreas Rinke)