Authors: Jahnavi Iyer & Sauradeep Bhattacharyya Region Head: Sauradeep Bhattacharyya Editor: Harsh Didwania
The European Union has almost always been on the fence about their relations with Russia. But with the recent Alexei Navalny poisoning, EU sanctions and controversial conference with EU’s foriegn policy chief, this decision might be closer than anticipated. The article further delves into how Alexei Navalny’s case has pushed for the EU to make its stance while arguing the importance of implementing a unified policy to keep the EU's international status and reduce Putin’s power.
The Kremlin has a long, sordid history of poisoning political dissidents. Hence, it is not surprising that they have taken a similar stance on Alexei Navalny - a lawyer and fierce anti-corruption activist, who has spent over a decade trying to expose Kremlin corruption and malfeasance (Mackinnon, 2019). There have been attacks on his person several times, and despite having braved them all, his ill-fated presidential run against Putin met its end when he was barred from standing against the autocrat in the presidential race citing prior embezzlement charges against him. The charges, however, have been contested by the European court of human rights (ECHR) due to procedural violations.
The Alexei Navalny case: Series of events since 2020
In August of 2020 while on board a flight from Siberia to Moscow, Alexei was taken ill. Following which he went into a coma and was admitted to a local hospital via an emergency landing in Omsk (Eddy, 2020). An embittering standoff ensued between Navalny’s supporters and the doctors overseeing him as allegations of a poisoning attack surfaced.
Despite opposition from Russian doctors, a medical plane sent by the Berlin-based humanitarian group, ‘Cinema for Peace Foundation’, was able to fly Navalny to Germany for treatment. Fortunately, the doctors in Berlin successfully treated Navalny, leading to his release from the hospital on September 23 after a full recovery. A month later, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — the world’s top chemical weapons watchdog — concluded that Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok, a highly lethal nerve agent, developed by the Soviet Union, leading many to culminate that the Kremlin was in fact behind the attack (BBC, 2020).
ii) Arrest and demonstrations
Despite being threatened with immediate arrest Navalny returned to Moscow, and was immediately detained in custody, awaiting a trial in February.
Just two days after Navalny’s detention, his team released a two-hour video, which has since gone viral revealing a secret billion-dollar estate and palace owned by Putin with an underground ice rink, a hookah bar, and a stripper pole-laden stage.
Russia, suffering from an economic downturn and an unrelenting coronavirus outbreak erupted at the light of these revelations. Thousands occupied the streets of more than 100 Russian cities on January 23, while braving the low temperatures.Demonstrators clashed with law enforcement ranging from snowball fights to physical violence — culminating in the arrest of nearly 4,000 people. In an absolute brazen display of autocratic brutality, the trial sentenced Navalny to be moved to a notorious penal camp 100 kilometers east of Moscow at the end of February.
European Union’s stance on Russia before Navalny’s poisoning
As of today, the EU is yet to make their stance on Russia and dealing with them is the most pressing foreign-policy problem they are currently facing (The Economist, 2021). It is important that a stance is made due to the threats on world peace and security that Russia imposes. Although Russia can be a powerful ally or business opportunity, they can also be an existential threat. Eastern EU countries such as the Baltic states and Poland, view Russia as a terror while Spain, Italy, Germany and France are on the fence about their view. Moreover, Germany prioritises its economy over geopolitics, with the Nord Stream 2, an export gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany while France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, still envisions a partnership with Russia in the near future.
Impetus behind EU possibly making a stance on Russia
The EU has consistently tried to keep its hopes up for forming better relations with Russia. But the time for sitting on the fence about this matter is over and a strategic vision is required in order to handle Russia efficiently. The EU needs to step in to reduce Putin’s power in fabricating Russia’s status as an indispensable world power and this can only be done so via a unified policy. The policy would preferably be between EU and NATO countries, in order for the EU to continue to have international influence (Paet, 2021). However, countries like Germany may not be on board with this policy as their vested interests lie in the Nord Stream 2, which is a hurdle the EU leaders would have to overcome while implementing this policy. But with the event that occurred earlier this year of EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell being humiliated in Russia, the region’s leaders are becoming more conscious of making their stance. At the conference in Russia, they were deemed an ‘unreliable partner’ and were accused by the Russian leaders of lying about Nalavny’s poisoning. Furthermore, Moscow expelled three European diplomats. These instances are increasingly making it crystal clear about Russia’s unwillingness in building a better relationship (Palacio, 2021).
Scope for a unified stance
On what could already be considered trouble waters, the EU-Russia relationship took the final blow in the unabashed display of human rights violations in the Navalny debacle, causing them to expressly unify their fragmented stance on Russia through a list of sanctions through the EU’s new human rights regime.
European Union ambassadors approved sanctions against four senior Russian law enforcement officials over the jailing of opposition leader Alexey Navalny (Nardelli & Seputyte, 2021). The restrictive measures will be formally adopted by the bloc’s 27 capitals in a unanimous decision.
The measures would target four individuals:
● Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard
● Igor Krasnov, Russia’s prosecutor general ● Alexander Kalashnikov, the Federal Penitentiary Service chief ● And Alexander Bastrykin, who leads the Investigative Committee that oversaw the probe
Critics say that the EU sanctions fall short of calls by Navalny's supporters as these sanctions are primarily in the form of travel bans and asset freezes. According to experts, such sanctions have less impact as state officials do not have funds in EU banks or travel to the EU. Even the Western sanctions imposed on Russia’s economy in 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea had far more impact.
Still, imposing sanctions offers a ray of hope for future prevention of human rights violations. This sentiment was also expressed by Leonid Volkov, a senior Navalny aide. Prior to the EU meeting in Brussels, he said that sanctions against oligarchs might be a way to weaken Putin if they came to feel that association with the president was more of a liability than a source of protection. He also welcomed the decision saying that “Even if it’s too little ... it’s the first time personal sanctions are applied with regard to human rights violations, so it opens a way for further negotiation on this with Europe,” (Emmott & Siebold, 2021).
Moreover, the Alexei Navalny case has caused other global superpowers to reconsider the possibility of envisioning a constructive relationship with Russia. The U.S. Commerce department in a recent statement expressed intentions of tightening sanctions on exports to Russia and preventing Russia from accessing sensitive U.S. technologies that might be diverted to its malign chemical weapons activities.
We are now seeing a global response to human rights violations in Russia. Prior to Navalny’s case, superpowers would have turned a blind eye to such incidents. This is a turning point, full of hope for a future where crackdown by the E.U could act as a strong deterrent to such violations and Alexei Navalny would be hailed as the brave harbinger of this new era.
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