EUREN Members Answer
The Navalny case and its implications for EU-Russia relations

he poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny on 22 August was yet another shock to the already frail relationship between the EU and Russia. After his evacuation to receive medical treatment at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, Federal Chancellor Merkel declared on 2 September 2020 that Navalny was the victim of an attempted political murder that aimed to silence him. The events resulted in an unprecedented low in German-Russian relations. The Navalny case and the deep divide between Brussels and Moscow over the post-election developments in Belarus triggered the most serious crisis in EU-Russia relations since 2014. What will be the short and medium-term implications of the events for the relationship? What should both sides do in the current situation? What could and should they do in terms of conflict management and damage limitation?

1 October 2020

ALEXANDER AKSENENOK | Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow :

The tragedy unfolding around Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the peaceful uprising in Belarus should be considered as links in the same chain. For Russia, rather than being about foreign policy, both of these events are about domestic politics and the preservation of a political system with a narrowing electoral base. These calculations also matter - to a lesser degree - for the EU, and especially Germany, which found itself at the epicenter of the "Navalny was poisoned or not" case.

The two events overlap so closely, there can be no doubt about their dangerous implications for EU-Russia relations. There is now a risk that the search for areas of selective engagement, which the German EU presidency had put on the agenda before August's events, will be replaced by an unmanageable policy of containment and tit-for-tat from both sides. Already we see a dialogue of the deaf, which could lead to the point of no return. Without any changes at the domestic front, it will be impossible for both sides to return to some kind of normal relationship.

The crisis in Belarus is of a geopolitical nature for Russia, and it is troubling that the Russian leadership sees events in Belarus as being orchestrated by the West rather than as an expression of popular will.

The EU and its key member states now face a difficult dilemma that pits morality versus geopolitical calculus: On the one hand, they ought to react harshly to the Belarusian leadership's violent attempts to crush the protest movement, but on the other, such moves could risk pushing Minsk closer towards Russia. Some Russian liberals have coined the term "hypocrisy versus diplomacy" for the EU's current predicament.

The only solution to the Navalny case is to shift the mutual claims to an international format. Moscow should stop insisting on bilateral deliberations with Germany. As far as Belarus is concerned, Russia should send some credible messages that it is not relying solely on Lukashenko and striving instead to establish contacts with the Belarusian people. Otherwise, Russia risks estranging the Belarussians, as regretfully happened with the Ukrainians.

OKSANA ANTONENKO | Control Risks Group, Cambridge :

2020 could have provided ample opportunity for an improvement of EU-Russia relations, from cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic to progress on the Donbas ceasefire. Instead, the EU is contemplating new sanctions against Russia in response to the authoritative conclusion of German, French and Swedish labs that a military-grade nerve agent was used to poison Alexey Navalny. The incident has all the hallmarks of Russian state responsibility – either for the poisoning or for negligence in allowing other actors to gain access to a Soviet-made chemical weapon from the Novichok family.

While Russian officials deny the poisoning and refuse to initiate a criminal investigation, the EU now faces difficult choices on how it should respond to an incident on Russian soil. After Novichok was used in Salisbury to murder a UK citizen, a wave of diplomatic expulsions took place in almost all EU states, sending a powerful signal of EU solidarity. A similar scale of expulsions could be problematic now as it would place major constraints on bilateral relations.

The expansion of the EU's sectoral sanctions is unlikely, given the difficulty in reaching consensus on such a divisive issue. However, the EU will probably apply targeted individual sanctions through its Chemical weapons sanctions regime on those deemed to be responsible for the poisoning and cover-up. However, in the absence of Russian cooperation identifying such individuals will be hard. Individual EU member states – the UK and the Baltic States – can issue individual sanctions under the purview of their national "Magnitsky laws". The EU will not finalise its new regulations on human rights sanctions for some months.

The Navalny case has shone another negative spotlight on Nord Stream 2, which has remained deadlocked since the introduction of US secondary sanctions. While it is unlikely that Germany will formally withdraw its support, it could delay the project until the national elections in September 2021. The next German government could have a more pronounced negative attitude towards this project, so its future remains uncertain.

Even if EU sanctions are unlikely to be significant, the incident is bound to have a lasting effect on EU-Russia relations. It has already damaged trust in Russian-German relations and could – alongside the current crisis in Belarus – further aggravate relations with the Baltic States and Poland. All this will complicate any progress on the conflict in Ukraine, the crisis in Belarus and other potential crisis points in the common neighbourhood and elsewhere.

For more analysis on potential EU and US sanctions see "Navalny poisoning raises prospect of new sanctions on Russia" by Oksana Antonenko (originally published by Control Risks).

LAURE DELCOUR | University Paris 3 — Sorbonne Nouvelle :

In the short term, the poisoning of Alexey Navalny will further deplete trust vis-à-vis the Russian authorities in the European Union. It is also likely to foster greater EU unity, with most member states agreeing (under the German leadership) to a firm line vis-à-vis Moscow.

This means that the events will put a halt to attempts at a rapprochement with Russia, initiated last year by President Macron. From the very outset, Macron's reset plan triggered sharp criticism, including within the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In fact, even before Navalny had been poisoned, the French President's efforts to engage Russia had appeared to be unsuccessful, as plainly acknowledged by the French Minister of Defence in early July. The ultimate blow to any hope of a renewed dialogue came in mid-September when President Putin (in a phone conversation with his French counterpart, leaked by the leading French newspaper Le Monde) allegedly said that the Novichok used might come from other countries, such as Latvia, and Navalny might have poisoned himself. For the French President, these implausible and contradictory explanations came as a clear signal that trust-building was no longer an option.

In this situation, the EU needs to uphold the firm stance initiated by Chancellor Merkel. It should put an end to current cooperation projects, such as Nord Stream 2, while keeping the channels of dialogue with Moscow open. This response to Navalny's poisoning is unlikely to yield any positive effects, in Russia or the common neighbourhood, but it will preserve both the EU's credibility and (relative) unity.

In the longer term, any substantial change in EU-Russia relations is unlikely to result from a mutation of either partner's policy. It is more likely it will derive from major changes in the international context, as Moscow and Brussels are increasingly affected by global developments, primarily in and between the US and China.

LARISA DERIGLAZOVA | Jean Monnet Centre for European studies, Tomsk State University :

For the last seven years, the EU and Russia have talked to each other by using the language of sanctions. This framework seriously limits their space for manoeuvre. The Navalny case has increased mistrust and dissatisfaction on both sides. This is being reinforced by the disagreement over the political crisis in Belarus, which is unfolding simultaneously. Russia and the EU are now in a dangerous 'chain reaction' mode, which will not lead to a way out of the crisis.

The situation raises several questions that need to be addressed if all actors want to return to rational behavior and prevent further deterioration: Who would benefit from the poisoning of Alexey Navalny, the most prominent and recognizable opposition figure in Russia? Why did Russian authorities not start an investigation immediately after the incident?

We should not forget that the actions taken in Russia in the first hours and days after Navalny's poisoning saved his life. This certainly includes the adequate and timely actions of the pilot who landed his plane, the health workers who took care of him in Omsk, and the local and federal authorities who facilitated his departure to Germany.

To allow that the Kremlin is responsible for the poisoning would amount to a conspiracy theory. But the Russian leadership is hardly known for being inane - as irritating and unacceptable as its critics may find this The foreseeable implications of an attack against Navalny — a further deepening of the crisis in relations with the West and new sanctions are simply not in its interest, particularly in times of economic strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, both the EU and Russia should question whether sanctions are an effective political tool. If the EU sanctions imposed in 2014 aimed to change Russia's foreign policy, then they have failed — even though they worsened Russia's economic situation. Russian sanctions as well have damaged EU countries that were Russia's active economic partners. Many analysts point out that sanctions affect ordinary people rather than the elites; sometimes sanctions even strengthen the regime they are directed against.

Today the EU and Russia should be wary of the chain reaction mode in their relations that already caused growing militarization and a demonstration of high-level military preparedness in Europe since 2014.

JANIS KLUGE | German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin :

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.

PETR KRATOCHVIL | Institute of International Relations, Prague :

Western politicians did not mince their words when they commented on the poisoning of Alexey Navalny. In an exceptionally open statement, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel directly asked the Russian government to answer some serious questions about the poisoning. President Macron also urged President Putin to shed light on the attempted murder. All this seems to indicate that EU-Russian relations may take yet another qualitative turn for the worse, and yet this is highly improbable. There are at least three reasons why such a development is unlikely.

First, the energies of the European Union are entirely consumed by the fight against the coronavirus. Even after the crisis has finished, the EU will place more focus on its economic recovery than its relationship with Russia. It is unlikely that politically bold, but economically sensitive measures, such as cancelling the Russian-German pet project Nord Stream 2, will come to pass.

Second, the poisoning overlaps with the stormy developments that have occurred in Belarus. As abhorrent as the poisoning of the main opposition figure in Russia is, the struggle in Belarus may determine the future of an entire country. Clearly, the toppling of President Lukashenka is a much more likely scenario than the hypothetical demise of President Putin. Hence, Belarus takes precedence as the number one topic in Eastern Europe.

Finally, and most importantly, has the poisoning of Navalny surprised anyone? For some time now, Russia has deservedly had the reputation of a state that is willing to eliminate Kremlin critics: Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, Nemtsov, Skripal and so on - the list seems endless. But that is exactly the reason why the latest poisoning has not changed the way the Russian leadership is perceived, nor has it altered the type of reaction that we may expect from the EU. The distrust of EU politicians could not be greater. At EU meetings, not a single member state is prepared to speak out for Russia anymore. The result of this is clear. We now have to prepare for an uncomfortably long period of disillusioned silence. The air is poisoned.

GERHARD MANGOTT | University of Innsbruck :

In the short term, the current crisis in EU-Russia relations will lead to the imposition of new sanctions on Russia. Unanimity is to be expected on both diplomatic sanctions (like the expulsion of a significant number of Russian diplomats) and additional blacklisting sanctions. The individuals responsible for the refusal to open a criminal investigation into what happened to Navalny in Tomsk should be blacklisted. In addition, it has never been more likely that there will be unanimity on legislation against Russia's human rights violations modelled on the US Magnitsky Act. New restrictive measures in the economic and financial realm are not to be expected, as there is no chance that all EU member states will agree on that.

One of the possible short-term reactions by the EU is a decision to stop or suspend the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) gas pipeline. Chancellor Merkel has announced that she will re-evaluate her position on separating the "business project" from "political affairs". Presumably, Merkel, supported by the governments of the Czech Republic, Austria and others, is trying to buy time and postpone making a decision on NS2. Probably she will announce her continued support of the gas pipeline project once the current angry emotions have ebbed away.

In the short and medium term, any policy proposal by an EU government to re-engage with Russia is to be ruled out. Macron's initiative, launched in August 2019, is dead. In Germany, the new generation's views of Russia are more sober and distant. A long-term economic decoupling of the EU and Russia – as discussed in the European Parliament and among eastern European governments – is very unlikely though. With there being strong mutual economic and financial interests, the confrontation will decrease over time.

In Russia, the current confrontation will strengthen those in the elite who distrust the EU in general and have lost interest in political re-engagement.

VALERI MIKHAILENKO | doctor of history, professor, Yekaterinburg :

For twenty years, Russia has been weakening its international position. Decades of freedom given in the 1990s were not enough to transform Russia into a society of free and responsible individuals after it suffered the difficult economic conditions of the transition period. The new militarized class that came to power in 2000 carried out the redistribution of property in their own interests and is now defending that property by any means possible. Behind their proclaimed conservative ideology there is no meaning other than a protective one – the use of state and public institutions to maintain the achieved status quo. The militarized style of thinking of the ruling elite does not allow competition and rivalry in any political field – in interstate relations or within the country.

Of all the modern great and middle powers Russia is the only one that was not able to use globalization in the interests of modernization. Russia has no foreign policy strategy that can promote the modernization of the country. The Russian leadership cultivates the concept of secrecy and "besieged fortress". Instead of integration into the world economy, the focus is on the defence industry as "the locomotive of the economy". In its relations with its neighbours, Russia operates by using the old-fashioned concept of geopolitical spheres of influence.
Nothing indicates that the ruling elite is learning from its foreign and domestic policy mistakes.

In my pessimistic view, there will be no positive changes in Russia until its current political system has exhausted itself completely. Navalny, like many of his associates or rivals in the democratic movement, took up a burden that neither the young reformers of the 1990s nor today's leadership were able to cope with: to act as responsible citizens. The government will take whatever means at its disposal against them. When it comes to foreign policy, Russia will act offensively whenever there's an opportunity. The European Union's policy towards Russia should be pragmatic but bear no illusions about imminent changes in Russia.

CAROLINA VENDIL PALLIN | Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI), Stockholm :

Conflict management and damage limitation in the EU-Russia relationship can only take place if both sides are willing to engage in such activities. At the moment, the situation looks bleak. Alexey Navalny, the most important non-systemic opposition leader has been poisoned with a nerve agent banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention. This has resulted in an acute crisis in EU-Russia relations, which will also have more lingering consequences.

Moscow's immediate response followed a well-established pattern that is built on recognisable 3D tactics – to diminish the importance of Navalny as a political force; to discredit him and his political movement and the people working with him; and to seed disinformation and spread a number of alternative narratives. The further away from the Kremlin, the more imaginative the narratives are. However, according to reports about a conversation between presidents Macron and Putin in the French media, the latter also peddles this kind of extreme response in his conversations with EU leaders. This flippant kind of response to an attempted murder and the use yet again of the Novichok nerve agent has raised alarms and caused genuine abhorrence in European capitals.

The immediate effect is that new sanctions against Russia are on the table in Brussels. Even more importantly, attempts to review and improve EU-Russia relations are on the backburner again. A long-term effect will be that further damage is done to Russia's international reputation. Its strategy of consistently denying involvement, no matter how much evidence there is, has chipped away at Russia's credibility to the point that an "implausible denial" is now expected from them. For Brussels, the remaining conclusion is that, firstly, Russia has no interest in pursuing an investigation, even though a highly potent nerve agent was used on Russian territory. Secondly, Russia does not even show a superficial commitment towards protecting citizens that belong to the opposition. The poisoning of Navalny has put the spotlight on just how wide the gulf is between the EU and Russia.