EU to lift sanctions slapped on two Russians, one Slovak over Ukraine war, diplomats say

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By Gabriela Baczynska and Julia Payne

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will lift sanctions against two Russian businessmen and one Slovak national, two diplomatic sources told Reuters on Thursday, but stressed the bloc was not likely to follow suit for billionaire Alisher Usmanov.

The EU slapped asset freezes and travel bans on some 2,000 people and companies deemed involved in or benefiting from Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which reaches its two-year mark on Saturday.

Some of the restrictions expire on March 15. Envoys of the EU's 27 member countries agreed on Wednesday to roll them over apart from the sanctions against Arkady Volozh, Sergey Mndoiants and Jozef Hambalek.

Volozh is co-founder of Russian internet giant Yandex and, sources said, the case against him has become weaker since he called Moscow's war in Ukraine "barbaric" last summer after staying silent following the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.

Mndoiants used to run government relations at Russian conglomerate Sistema and is also a board member at a Russian think-tank advising the Kremlin on foreign and defence policy, according to the EU.

Slovakia's Hambalek is head of the Russian nationalist Night Wolves motorcycle club in Europe, according to the EU, and has been accused of training bikers for combat in Ukraine and "spreading pro-Russian propaganda".

One of the diplomatic sources said the three listings were considered "indefensible legally", including because of a change of behaviour in the case of Volozh.

EU diplomatic sources also told Reuters that Hungary again lobbied to lift sanctions against Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, but that the metal and telecoms tycoon was not considered a legally "weak listing" given that he had lost his sanctions appeal at the bloc's top court earlier this month.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Budapest was also seeking to delist Russian former Formula One driver Nikita Mazepin as well as Vyacheslav Kantor, who is the beneficial owner of Russian fertilizer producer Acron, according to the EU.

"Evidence for all of them is deemed strong," said one of the diplomats. "There was massive pushback to the suggestion" of Hungary to drop punitive measures against them.

Hungary's EU mission did not reply to a request for comment.

The changes will take effect before March 15 and will mean EU governments will immediately be able to free any assets of Volozh, Mndoiants and Hambalek that had been frozen.

Separately, the bloc will unveil on Friday its 13th package of Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia that will ban nearly 200 new entities and individuals accused of helping Moscow procure weapons or of involvement in kidnapping Ukrainian children.

(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Mark Heinrich)