Ian BondDirector of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform
After more than twenty years, the EU has not found a successful strategy to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin does not respect weakness. Yet the EU treats each outrageous act as a one-off, worthy of mild sanctions but with early redemption possible, rather than as a pattern of behavior deserving a stronger reaction on each occasion.
In the case of the attack on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August 2020, the poison was administered in Russia, not on Western streets. But the EU should not behave as though that undermines the case for a firm reaction. The use of chemical weapons is an abhorrent crime, wherever it takes place. After the 2018 Novichok poison attack on former spy Sergei Skripal in the UK, most EU countries expelled a few Russian spies—not enough to deter Putin, apparently.
So far, the EU has responded to the attack on Navalny by sanctioning a handful of Russian officials and by getting the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate Russia’s Novichok program. That will not make Putin beg for mercy, either.
The EU underestimates its ability to influence Russian behavior; the Russian economy relies on Europeans to buy its hydrocarbons and sell it goods and services—including financial services for the elite. Europe should not be afraid to use its leverage.
Jakub EberleHead of the Centre for European Politics at the Institute of International Relations Prague
I would not call the EU too soft on Putin, especially considering the tools it has at its disposal and the requirement of unanimity among member states in foreign policy matters.
The European Council has been extending and expanding sanctions against Russia ever since 2014. The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and the European Parliament have not minced their words with respect to Russia’s human rights or rule-of-law violations. Steps like these push the EU far from what could reasonably be called Putinversteher, or “Putin understander.” For the truly hard stuff, we have NATO.
This being said, Russia’s behavior—not only in the Navalny case—leaves few alternatives but a further hardening of the EU’s position. In the short term, another round of sanctions should be agreed. In the longer term, the EU and its member states should focus above all on weakening Putin’s hand by fixing its vulnerabilities.
For starters, they should think twice before allowing Russian involvement in strategic projects, especially in the energy sector. Developing stronger European military muscle would fortify NATO’s deterrence in Eastern Europe. Cracking down on money laundering would make life harder to the Kremlin’s friends and proxies.
It is through practical measures like these that the EU can bring added value.
Liana FixProgram Director of the International Affairs Department of the Körber Foundation
More importantly than too soft, the EU is not smart enough on Russia.
As Mark Galeotti has argued, the sanctions adopted after the poisoning of Navalny were entirely predictable and had less impact than those imposed after the poisoning of Skripal. The EU needs more imaginative measures than the ritualistic tit-for-tat of personal sanctions and travel bans—especially in a long-term perspective.
An important element of a smarter EU approach in the long term would be to take corruption and money laundering in the EU more seriously. Scandals such as the so-called Russian Laundromat demonstrated how easily inflows of money can find their way into the European banking system. Closing these pathways would seriously hurt kleptocratic regimes, not only in Russia.
Another smart measure to support Russian society in the long term would be a liberalization of the visa regime. Russia experts have demanded this step for a long time. It would allow ordinary Russians to experience Europe first hand and to forge closer ties with European neighbors—countering the mutual estrangement that has occurred in the last years.
Finally, yet importantly, the EU—especially in foreign policy—is only the sum of its member states. As long as member states prioritize their own preferential economic and energy interests over a common European approach, any EU leverage toward Russia will remain constrained by these internal divergences.
François HeisbourgSenior Adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
No amount of pressure is likely to work if the objective is to force on the Kremlin an extraterritorial investigation of the plot to poison Navalny.
Precisely because the responsibility of Putin’s vertical of power is directly involved in an attempted homicide using internationally banned neurotoxins, the Russian president cannot allow such an investigation to happen, even in an adulterated form. This goal is much more difficult to achieve than getting China to accept a watered-down World Health Organization mission to look into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year after it emerged in Wuhan.
If the aim is to make Russia pay a price for its murder attempt, then the EU can do more by inflicting reputational damage and imposing additional Magnitsky-type sanctions as new data emerges through ongoing fact-finding efforts, including Navalny’s brilliant unmasking of some of the Kremlin’s henchmen.
As in 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas, Germany’s stance will be essential in building such an EU consensus. Indeed, the Russian authorities’ placing of Navalny into a month of detention appears to be calibrated to see whether this will happen—or not.
The German Christian Democratic Union’s new leadership will be watched closely.
John HerbstDirector of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council
Overall, EU policy toward Russia has been adequate, nothing more. Under Putin, Moscow has been pursuing a provocative and revanchist foreign policy since at least its cyber attack on Estonia in 2007, a policy that includes aggressive wars against Georgia and Ukraine, interference in foreign elections, and targeted assassinations across Europe.
In short, the Kremlin has proved a constant threat to European security and values.
The EU reaction to these provocations has been ad hoc. There has been no clear effort to understand Kremlin policy and define a proper response. By and large, some countries in Western and Southern Europe seem to think there is no problem.
But countries closer to Russia have a clearer view of the threat. And some Russian actions—like using chemical weapons in an assassination attempt in the UK—require even timid nations in the EU to respond. With strong leadership from Germany, the EU also managed to impose and maintain punishing sanctions on Moscow for its ongoing aggression in Ukraine.
The sanctions could and should be stronger, but they are still a contribution to European security. So, the EU’s Russia policy gets a bare passing grade.
John C. KornblumSenior Counselor at Noerr LLP
I would pose the question somewhat differently. Putin is a despot who thrives on foreign pressure. “Punishing” Russia only strengthens him at home.
Better to relearn lessons from the 1970s. Détente succeeded because the West threatened to undermine Russia’s real interests. Then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev even accepted the Helsinki Final Act—which among other things strengthened civil rights in Communist countries—after it became clear that the West would not give up in Berlin, and that the United States was ready to reopen relations with China.
Today, when Germany ignores the damage that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline could inflict on allies, or when NATO acquiesces to Russian missiles on Poland’s border, Putin knows he has the situation under control.
Pinning responsibility for the wars in Ukraine, Georgia, or Nagorny Karabakh on Russia, or defining Russia as an aggressor rather than a “peacemaker” in Ukraine, would draw Putin’s attention.
A decision finally to implement the 2008 offer of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia would be many times more effective than additional sanctions. Or how about making Russian war crimes in Syria a matter for UN consideration? Do that and you have Putin’s attention. More sanctions? He will respond by shutting down our power plants.
Agnieszka LeguckaSenior Research Fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs
To many Europeans, Navalny is either brave or reckless. Some say he shouldn’t believe in a democratic and better Russia. In that sense, Navalny is the opposite of the European Union. He is not afraid to face Putin’s regime.
The EU’s member states, on the other hand, again reacted to Navalny’s case with “deep concern.” Even the calls of the European Parliament to review EU-Russia relations and isolate Russia in the international arena will not change the fact that Moscow has become accustomed to this response.
From the perspective of the Russian leadership, in recent years, it has successfully safeguarded the country against Western pressure, offset the effects of sanctions, and maintained internal political and economic stability as well as control over the population.
Despite the sharp rhetoric toward Russia, the international consequences of poisoning Navalny have not been severe for Russia. In Germany, the case spurred wide debate regarding the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the German government did not withdraw its political support for the project. If it did, it would be a strong move that would put the authorities in Russia on notice.
John LoughAssociate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House
Yes. The EU continues to find it impossible to mount a coherent response to the Kremlin’s policies because of a lack of consensus about the nature of the threat they pose.
Events in Ukraine in 2014 led to an EU compromise that has not changed: sanctions and dialogue where possible. This was a considerable achievement that owed much to the shift of German policy. It was a tactical response, not a strategy.
Sanctions have remained thanks to Moscow’s intransigence over Ukraine together with its behavior in Syria and use of Novichok in Salisbury. Russia’s leaders have made their country an outcast in Europe and appear comfortable with the result. There has been no productive dialogue with the EU and nor is there likely to be.
Belarus continues to fester with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka clinging to power, and neither the EU nor Russia knows what to do there. EU leaders have been wary of provoking greater confrontation with Russia, and yet, in the absence of firmer policies, relations have steadily worsened.
The EU should sanction many more individuals who are the enablers of the Putin system and make it clear that the EU distinguishes those in the Kremlin from the Russian people at large.
Jovana MarovićExecutive Director of Politikon Network
The answer is both yes and no. EU-Russia relations have been at an extremely poor level for a long time, with a series of sanctions, disagreements on a number of issues, and the Navalny case further complicating the situation.
The EU reacted both after the poisoning and after Navalny’s detention upon his return to Moscow on January 17, 2021, while condemnations and demands for his immediate release came from the highest levels.
It is to be expected that the EU—after the proposal of Lithuania—and probably some other countries, will consider new sanctions against Russia, but, if so, they will most likely remain at the current level: expanding the list of individuals close to Putin that are targeted.
On the other hand, the EU is burdened with many internal problems and does not have the strength for more decisive steps.
Jeff RathkePresident of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University
Yes. EU leaders have failed to exert their full influence on Putin’s behavior, so he believes Russia can destabilize neighboring countries and undermine democratic systems within the EU without consequences.
The attempted assassination of Navalny is only the most recent example and demonstrates two contradictory fundamentals of Putin’s Russia: impunity at the very top along with a deep fear and sense of vulnerability to mass protest. This is not just a Russian internal problem; it damages important European interests.
Before Navalny’s poisoning, there was the Skripal nerve-agent attack in the UK and the 2019 murder of an ethnic Chechen exile in broad daylight in Berlin.
With respect to Navalny, the EU should signal serious consequences if Navalny is subject to further persecution at the hands of the Russian state. EU foreign ministers meet on January 25, 2021, and they should indicate in advance their readiness to decide on further sanctions on regime figures.
More broadly, national leaders will hold the key to a tougher and more effective approach. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, through long experience, understands well Putin’s psychology and his danger. She risks bequeathing her successor, however, a policy lacking coherence: firm and EU-centric on Ukraine but mushy and national on Nord Stream 2.
The EU needs more of her steely resolve and less of her wind-testing caution in her remaining months in office.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations and Director of Luiss University Data Lab
In February, EU High Representative Josep Borrell is scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.
Announcing the summit, the first since former EU high representative Federica Mogherini’s mission to Russia in 2017, Borrell’s spokesperson said: “We will closely watch what happens after Mr. Navalny’s announced return to Russia on January 17 and expect the Russian authorities to observe their duty to respect his rights.”
Russian dissident Alexei Navalny did return to his homeland and was, immediately, arrested. How will Europe react? With a muscular challenge like the sanctions after the war in Ukraine began? A dignified reaction like the succor Merkel gave to Navalny after he was poisoned?
Do not expect a united approach. The EU faces a pandemic and mounting economic troubles, an addiction to Russian gas, and a few member countries that sympathize with the Kremlin or are dominated by Russia-fueled populist parties.
Merkel was adamant in her personal opposition to Putin, despite the specter of Northern gas. European Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni has vouched for human rights, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will do her best, but the key will be U.S. President Joe Biden.
If Biden gives some leverage to the EU, a patched-up NATO-European coalition may—eventually—corner the wily Russian strongman.