Navalny poisoning: Confronting Russia, EU has limited options | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 03.09.2020

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Navalny poisoning: Confronting Russia, EU has limited options

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has demanded answers from Moscow after "unequivocal evidence" that opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned. But what can the West really do to exert pressure on Russia?

Chancellor Angela Merkel has described the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who is currently being treated at Berlin's Charite Hospital, as "attempted murder." Lab tests found that the nerve agent Novichok, which was developed in the Soviet Union, had "without a doubt" been used to poison the Russian opposition politician.

Merkel, joined by the European Union and NATO, has demanded an explanation from the Russian government. But the Kremlin has dismissed the accusations that Navalny was poisoned and said that it wants to examine the lab results. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has announced that Germany will confer with its partners on what an "appropriate answer" could be in the next few days.

Read more: Navalny, Novichok and Nord Stream 2 — Germany stuck between a rock and a pipeline

But what is an 'appropriate' response? 

Political scientist Klaus Segbers argued in an article for the online version of Germany's Zeit newspaper that there had been enough talk with the Kremlin. "It only makes sense to talk if minimum behavioral standards are observed and interests overlap at least a little," he wrote. He explained that with Russia's occupation of parts of Georgia and Ukraine, its shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and its numerous attacks on opposition politicians, Moscow had shown it was not interested in communicating with the West.

Helmut Scholz, an MEP for Germany's socialist Left party and its spokesman on foreign affairs, disagreed, arguing that it was important to intensify relations with Moscow. "I do not think that more escalation and confrontation will help the bilateral relationship at all," he said, calling for cooperation and adding that the Russian and EU secret services should also work together more and display a "sense of proportion and responsibility."

Read more: Alexei Navalny: A Russian dissident battles Kremlin, Putin

Segbers and the chair of the Bundestags's Committee on Foreign Affairs, Norbert Röttgen, have called for sanctions and an end to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that is almost 90% complete and intended to transport gas from Russia to Germany directly.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff from Germany's business-friendly FDP party told DW that it would not make sense to put an end to the project completely, but said there should be a "moratorium" until the Navalny case had been resolved. He pointed out that Russia would not incur huge damages if the pipeline wasn't completed. The gas would still be sold to customers in the West who needed it — it would just arrive via different already existing pipelines.

'Limited means' to pressure Russia

"We have to remember that the EU and Germany have very limited means of actually exerting pressure on Russia," said Hans-Henning Schröder of the Institute for East European Studies at the Free University of Berlin. He told DW that the only real thing that would have an impact would be if Germany and the EU stopped importing Russian gas. "But that's unrealistic because it would be extremely expensive and would demand a massive logistical reorganization."

Read more: Russia's city Khabarovsk rises against Vladimir Putin

According to the European Commission, oil and gas exports from Russia to the EU have increased in recent years despite the heightened tensions; half of Germany's gas supplies come from Russia. "It would be wrong to react to Navalny's poisoning with further economic sanctions, which would have an impact on companies and the Russian people that have nothing to do with the affair," argued Oliver Hermes, the chair of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations.

Symbolic sanctions don't do much

Over 150 Russian diplomats were expelled from the United States and the European Union, as well as other NATO states and Ukraine, after the 2018 poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. In response, Russia expelled 189 diplomats, most of whom were from the UK and the US. But it's hard to say exactly what impact this had on the ground.

"The sanctions imposed after Crimea and Ukraine, such as forbidding certain people from entering a country and freezing their accounts, are symbolic," said Schröder. "They don't change much in the relationship."

Read more: Opinion: Will Vladimir Putin ride out the Navalny storm?

EU member states have regularly and unanimously extended sanctions imposed on Russian individuals over the ongoing Ukraine conflict. However, there has been much less unity in the EU as to what general approach should be adopted toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

His French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, has tried to maintain a "special relationship" with the Kremlin and has met with Putin more than any other leading EU politician to talk about geopolitical issues such as Syria and Libya, for example.

On its official website, Italy's populist government claims to have "good and positive relations" with Russia. The same goes for Austria, whose government sees itself as a mediator between Russia and the West, although a recent spy scandal somewhat dampened this bilateral relationship.

But the eastern EU member states which were either part of the Soviet Union or its wider orbit tend to be more vocal about their concerns regarding Russia. The Baltic states and Poland, for example, have had very little praise for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.

Adapted from German by Anne Thomas