EU-Russia relations have been increasingly complicated over the last decade, not least because of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin’s support for rebels in eastern Ukraine and Russian military interference in Syria have only escalated matters. Russia’s misinformation operations and cyber threats, as well as efforts to intervene in Western democratic processes are another cause of stress.
On January 17, 2021, opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained on his return to Russia caused tensions in already complicated relation. Last week, a court in Moscow ordered Navalny to jail for two years and eight months for breaking his probation in Germany. The probation stemmed from the 2014 conviction that Navalny was dismissed as fabricated and deemed unconstitutional by the European Court of Human Rights. In an interview, Urmas Paet, the vice-chair of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, called for sanctions against “those who have direct responsibility for the arrest and harassment of Alexei Navalny”.
The Sanctions Debate comes after Borrell’s strong criticism of a humiliating trip to Moscow earlier this month, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a joint press conference to condemn the bloc, denouncing the EU as an incompetent ally. At the same time, Russia declared that it would expel three diplomats from Poland, Germany, and Sweden for “recorded participation” in protests. After this incident EU started working on a proposal to sanction Russia. The EU ambassadors addressed the disciplinary measures at a briefing on Wednesday, according to two diplomats familiar with the debate. No member State objected to the proposal, said one of the people who requested not to be named because the talks were private.
Diplomats also said that the bloc is set to plan travel bans and freeze properties on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s allies in reaction to Navalny’s detention, but they remain unlikely to place sanctions on oligarchs loyal to Putin, as the Kremlin critics have called for. In response, The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by saying it was “disappointed” at the bloc’s move and accusing the EU Foreign Affairs Council of invoking a “far-fetched pretext” to prepare “new unlawful restrictions on Russian citizens.” Russia is preparing for a break with the European Union if the EU implements new sanctions in the light of a disagreement over the treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the nation’s top diplomat warned recently. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized the importance of economic ties with the 27 EU nations, adding that Russia would continue engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation.
At the same time, Lavrov said, Russia must prepare for the worst and increasingly rely on its own resources. “We must achieve that in the economic sphere, if we see again, as we have felt more than once, that sanctions imposed in some areas create risks to our economy, including in the most sensitive spheres, such as supplies of parts and components,” the Russian foreign minister added.
EU chief diplomat Josep Borell criticized Russia and said that Russia was “ drifting towards an authoritarian state and driving away from Europe.” He also said, “The ministers unanimously interpreted to Russia’s recent actions and responses as a clear signal of not being interested in cooperation with the European Union, but the country looks interested in confrontation and disengagement from the European Union.” The meeting was arranged by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsberg. A coalition of EU representatives, including powerful France and Germany, called for a more targeted policy and for economic sanctions to be implemented. The unanimity of all the members of the bloc is usually needed to enforce sanctions.
On the other hand, Biden is expected to sanction Russia over this matter. The package proposed three forms of sanctions: the Magnitsky Act sanctions on persons who arrested Navalny; sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Regulation and Warfare Removal Act of 1991 (CBW Act); and sanctions under Executive Order 13382—’aimed at blocking the properties of proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and their backers,’ according to the State Department. Analysts told that the latest differences between Moscow and the EU could put pressure on the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 2. The project was strongly criticized, including by the United States, which imposed sanctions on pipeline companies. President Joe Biden has shown no indication of changing. The sanctions decision “sends a very clear message to people who are part of this regime, and maybe this will contribute to a small crack, to a small split within the regime, when people will start to feel that being close to Putin is not as safe and pretty anymore as it used to be,” Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, told reporters in Brussels.
It would not be the first time that Russian companies and individuals have been punished by the EU. Their relationship has deteriorated significantly since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, but at the end of the day, their ties are enormously important to both their shared economic, energy and strategic interests.
*Daniyal Talat has a Master’s in Defense & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, and currently works with the School of Inclusion as a Program Coordinator.