The latest deterioration of EU-Russia relations could not have come at a worse moment. The German EU presidency had put a review of the five guiding principles for EU's Russia policy, established in 2016, on the agenda, including for the biannual Gymnich meeting scheduled for August 28th in Berlin. The German diplomats had planned to use this opportunity to suggest ways to strengthen the principle of "selective engagement" with Russia in the years ahead.
However, when the EU's foreign ministers began their discussions, Alexey Navalny was lying poisoned on a hospital bed, less than two kilometers from the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin Mitte, and the Russian President Vladimir Putin had just announced he had formed a police reserve to back Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime in Belarus. As was so often the case in the past, Berlin's attempts to search for common ground between the EU and Russia were thwarted by the acute worsening of bilateral relations. For Berlin, it may have been a case of once too often. A quick return to the selective engagement agenda does not seem possible anymore.
While Navalny is doing better, relations between the EU and Russia are still worsening. Much of the recent deterioration is not due to the poisoning itself, but to the way the case has been treated by Moscow. It is important to note that Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel did not accuse the Kremlin of poisoning Navalny, although the use of the nerve agent Novichok could hardly have allowed any other conclusion. Instead, Berlin and other EU leaders called for an investigation. In other words, they left Moscow with an opportunity to show that Russia cared about the political fallout of the affair, if not about the case itself. All that was needed was the Kremlin to take these calls more seriously, and possibly initiate an investigation.
So far, Moscow has been missing out on this opportunity. Western calls for an investigation were met with sarcastic, dismissive responses, such as Putin's suggestion to Macron that Navalny probably poisoned himself. While there may be some point in discussing whether the Russian leadership was directly responsible for the attack on Navalny, the Kremlin is clearly in control of how it responds to the incident. Moscow can still take the EU's concerns seriously and demonstrate a minimal willingness to engage in a sincere way. But if the Kremlin sticks to its current rhetoric, the rift in EU-Russia relations will only deepen.