LONDON - Europe is under growing pressure to offer a more robust response to Russia, following the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Siberia in August. German doctors say he was poisoned with Novichok, a Russian nerve agent.
Navalny was flown to Germany for treatment and emerged from a coma in September. Doctors say he is making a good recovery. The Kremlin denies involvement in the attack. The 44-year-old leader of the “Russia of the Future” party says he plans to return to his home country to continue his fight against the government of President Vladimir Putin.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he expects the European Union to impose new sanctions on Moscow. “I am convinced that there will be no longer any way around sanctions,” Maas told the news website T-online in an interview Saturday. “Sanctions must always be targeted and proportionate. But such a grave violation of the International Chemical Weapons Convention cannot be left unanswered. On this, we’re united in Europe,” Maas added.
There are growing calls for Europe to take a harder stance against Moscow following a string of attacks in recent decades against opponents of the Kremlin, many on European soil.
The Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko died from radioactive polonium poisoning in London in 2006. Britain says the Russian state carried out his killing.
Former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with Novichok in 2018, the same agent allegedly used against Alexei Navalny and produced only by the Russian state. Both Sergei and Yulia Skripal survived, but a local woman died after coming into contact with the poison.
In August 2019, the former Chechen rebel commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot dead in a Berlin park. A Russian national was arrested close to the scene and is being prosecuted for the killing. Germany says the murder was directed by the Kremlin.
Moscow denies involvement in all these killings and attempted assassinations.
Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Russia and ambassador to Latvia, and now a foreign policy analyst at the London-based Center for European Reform, says there have been numerous suspicious deaths of Russian political exiles across Europe – and all too often the response has fallen short.
“There is sometimes a tendency of some European countries to think, ‘well, as long as it's Russians shooting other Russians, we should just let them get on with it.’ I think that's quite short sighted and you can never rule out the risks of collateral damage,” Bond told VOA.
Financier and political activist Bill Browder agrees. He has led efforts to persuade Western nations to adopt so-called ‘Magnitsky laws’ targeting the assets of Kremlin officials accused of human rights abuses, after his tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian jail in 2009. Magnitsky was denied medical care and investigations showed he had been beaten in jail.
“Putin poisoned his political opponent [Navalny] using a chemical weapon. And that should elicit massive and punishing consequences for Vladimir Putin,” Browder told VOA. “But as of yet, there have not been. And I find that both disappointing and also scary, because what it does is it it's a message to Putin that he can basically do anything he wants and there be no consequence.”
Browder says Europe does have leverage against Putin and the oligarchs who keep him in power.
“These people all have villas in the south of France, in Sardinia, in Marbella. They have apartments in London and Milan. They keep bank accounts in Switzerland, in Paris, in London. And if you want to touch them, if you want to actually do something, which makes them think twice about taking evil actions again, you go after what they covet the most. And so, the EU is the key.”
Browder says the EU’s ability to act is hampered because foreign policy requires unanimity from all members – giving each state a veto. “There's always somebody there who wants to do Putin a favor, and because of that, the EU effectively can't act.”
Germany has been accused of undermining sanctions against Moscow, as it continues to press ahead with the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to its northern shores. Critics, including Washington, say the pipeline will simply enrich the Kremlin.
Meanwhile French President Emmanuel Macron has defended his decision to continue dialogue with Russia despite the attack on Navalny. “We must face our history and our geography, and without any naivety and gullibility, to re-engage in a demanding strategic dialogue with our Russian neighbors, precisely to find ways of escalation when necessary, to better fight against the cyberattacks, or intrusions, sometimes manipulation, and build a security structure through a path of trust that, over time, we must know how to rebuild,” Macron told reporters during a trip to Riga, Latvia September 29.
Ultimately, Europe will have to engage with its giant neighbour to the east, says security analyst Julie Norman of University College London.
“I think we hear from these different approaches that a lot of European states are very frustrated at what they've seen from Europe,” Norman told VOA. “But they are also being pragmatic in the sense that Russia is an actor that they can't ignore.”
As Europe prepares to debate further sanctions on Moscow, Germany said it is awaiting results from samples taken from Navalny that were sent to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for additional tests before making a final decision.