Paris, France, Feb 1 – The jailing of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny is corroding already damaged Europe-Russia ties but EU leaders are unwilling to cut all contact with President Vladimir Putin and risk sacrificing climate and security cooperation, analysts say.
The arrest of Navalny at a Moscow airport last month, following months of medical treatment in Germany, prompted an outcry from the European Union and key member states who believe he was poisoned in the summer by the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.
The tensions come at a period of turbulence in Russia unusual in Putin’s two-decade grip on power, with police arresting thousands in two successive weekends of mass nationwide protests in support of the Kremlin critic.
But analysts expect the EU to still keep talking to Putin, even if Navalny’s situation will further darken a climate already bedevilled by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, claims of election meddling and alleged assassination plots on European territory.
“The arrest of Navalny may indeed lead to a further deterioration of EU-Russia ties and particularly those between Germany and Russia,” said Andras Racz and Milan Nic in a report on Russian foreign policy for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
They said that Moscow was “losing interest” in dealing with Europe while China under President Xi Jinping has emerged as “Russia’s sole great power partner in international affairs.”
Europe needs to “intelligently manage” a situation without any prospect of strategic improvement in the short or medium term but where there could be chances to cooperate on issues including global warming, the Arctic and the Covid-19 pandemic, they said.
– ‘Macron’s error’ –
In a key test for the temperature of relations, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell will travel to Russia on Thursday for talks in the first such visit since 2017.
The poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of Navalny have also largely derailed a bid by French President Emmanuel Macron for a rapprochement with Russia under Putin.
The French leader’s main achievements have been limited to chairing a 2019 summit that helped a July 2020 ceasefire that has sharply reduced fighting in the east of Ukraine.
Further EU sanctions against senior Russian officials will now be on the agenda but the big question is if Germany is willing to put the Nordstream II gas pipeline project at stake.
Putting the ball firmly in Berlin’s court and hinting of splits within the EU, France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune told France Inter radio on Monday that Paris had the “greatest doubts” over the project and had already asked Berlin to scrap it.
Francois Heisbourg, special advisor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London and the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) in Paris, said the West was prepared to inflict more “reputational damage” on Russia with sanctions but would not go to the brink on the issue.
He said Macron and other European leaders were uneasy over Russia’s partnership with China and would like to see it disappear, “but the error of Macron is to believe the Europeans have the means to hasten this.”
– ‘No choice’ –
Cyrille Bret, a lecturer at Sciences-Po university in Paris, said that while the West would defend freedom of expression in Russia as well as Navalny’s cause, security cooperation with Russia was still needed.
“We have no choice, Russia has a permanent seat on the UN security council and is invested in several essential formats, the Iranian nuclear agreements, the hypothetical political resolution of the conflict in Syria,” he said.
A similar approach is likely to be adopted by new US President Joe Biden, whose administration has been sharply critical of Russia over Navalny but also is keen to extend a landmark nuclear arms reduction agreement due to expire next month.
Upcoming votes add an additional factor of uncertainty, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel due to bow out after September polls and Russia facing potentially tense parliamentary elections the same month.
In Moscow, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, which is seen as often reflecting Kremlin thinking, said Russia was likely to shrug off new sanctions.
But he added: “If this pressure continues, it will not work. It will only harden the conviction that the West wants to hinder Russia and that everything must be done to retaliate.”