Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been discharged from a Berlin hospital after being poisoned by a Russian-made nerve agent in the Siberian city of Tomsk.
– The reformist, pro-democracy Navalny is seen as a threat to the centralised power of President Vladimir Putin
– A concerted response from the EU and NATO is unlikely as the poisoning, which took place on Russian soil, may not be perceived as a direct attack in the same way as previous Russian assassination attempts
– Should Navalny stay in Germany, it is likely that relations between the EU and Russia will deteriorate, but Navalny risks detention should he return to Russia
Alexei Navalny, a key figure in the anti-Putin Russian opposition movement, has been discharged from a Berlin hospital after being poisoned in late August. At the time of his poisoning, Navalny was on an investigative mission to the city of Tomsk where he was seeking to expose alleged corruption among lawmakers in Siberia. NATO and German officials believe the Russian state was responsible for Navalny’s poisoning, an assessment that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has agreed with. According to German officials, Navalny was poisoned using the nerve agent Novichok, an agent developed by the former Soviet Union and was used against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the British city of Salisbury in 2018. The use of Novichok on Navalny signifies how great a threat Russian President Vladimir Putin considers him to be, and how his political sidelining would be beneficial to Putin’s attempts to further consolidate power.
THE NAVALNY THREAT
Navalny is a thorn in Putin’s side, threatening his political dominance and ‘power vertical’, or top-down command structure, that he uses to preside over the Russian state. Putin is particularly wary of anti-government revolutions that may threaten his grip on power, such as those emulating ongoing protests in Belarus and the Russian city of Khabarovsk, and previous ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine and Georgia. Putin often blames these movements on the West and views them as US government-sponsored uprisings rather than organic anti-government protests. Navalny’s anti-Kremlin stance and his leadership role in the opposition movement, such as during mass protests in 2011 and 2012, threatens the powerful executive presidency that has come to define Russian politics. Navalny’s previous role in nationwide protests makes him a likely leader in a potential ‘colour revolution’ in Russia, a nightmare scenario for Putin and a possibility that he would be desperate to prevent. Consistent with this stance, Russia has denied having any role in Navalny’s poisoning and has instead accused the EU, NATO and the US of spreading false information.
While the poisoning of Russian dissidents has become a defining feature of Russian politics, the possible response by the West to the assault on Navalny is unclear. When Novichok was used on Sergei Skripal in 2018, the UK led a coalition of governments to impose limited sanctions and diplomatic expulsions were imposed on Russia. Putin may have been deterred from using Novichok on the soil of another EU or NATO member state, but clearly was not dissuaded from using Novichok again. In the Skripal poisoning, the use of a toxic agent in the UK and the risk of collateral injury to British civilians was widely viewed as an attack on a NATO member state — indeed, the poisoning killed one unrelated individual and critically injured another. In contrast, Navalny’s poisoning, while fitting a pattern of attacks and assassinations of Kremlin opponents, may be seen as an isolated, political act by Putin. Given these circumstances, the West’s collective response may be weak as the incident may not be considered a direct attack on the West. In NATO and the EU’s calculation, Navalny’s poisoning likely poses little direct threat to European security despite it being against EU values of human rights and political dialogue.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT MOVES?
A concerted EU and US response is unlikely given the antipathy between Brussels and Washington and existing divisions over Russia among EU member states. Navalny’s poisoning has already revealed deep rifts within the EU, with Germany threatening sanctions against Russia in the absence of a collective EU imposition of sanctions. France may join with Germany in favouring sanctions, but resistance is likely to come from EU member states like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, all of whom have crafted close economic and political ties to Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in particular has been central in championing Putin’s cause of ultraconservative ‘illiberal democracy’ across Central Europe, making any concerted EU response extremely difficult to achieve.
Navalny is a young politician known for his social media and digital technology skills, traits shared by his supporters. He has been able to rally protesters and quickly organise demonstrations through social media platforms like VK and the officially banned Telegram messaging app; this has provided for a decentralised method of coordinating anti-Putin activities. However, any anti-government protests, with or without Navalny’s leadership, would likely end in violent crackdowns by the Russian security services and further constraints on social media. Such an outcome would likely force the EU and US to take a stronger position against Putin and place conditions on Navalny’s return to Russia. As a public figure who has been previously attacked and imprisoned, Navalny is at risk of detention and further assault should he return to Russia. His situation is similar to that of Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is currently in political exile in Lithuania as she attempts to organise ongoing protests against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s heavily disputed re-election. Both Navalny and Tsikhanouskaya are determined that the Russian and Belarusian people are ready for a change in leadership, but they will likely face great odds from the entrenched security and pro-government political apparatuses in both nations.
Navalny is likely to survive his poisoning; he has already posted on Instagram saying that he is recovering and could now “breathe the entire day by myself”. However, Navalny may not survive a campaign by the Kremlin to bar him from running for public office. Navalny will likely have to settle for a permanent opposition role while negotiating with governments in the US and Europe. Changing Western governments are likely to have different approaches to Russia and to Navalny’s campaigns, meaning his support is likely to be unsustainable. While a growing anti-Putin consensus is emerging in the West, Russia will always be a business partner for Europe as it is responsible for supplying energy to many EU member states. What has not yet emerged is a sanctions consensus that would target the corrupt Kremlin leaders that Navalny has exposed. This balancing act signifies that human rights concerns such as Navalny’s poisoning may not always be foremost in the minds of EU leaders.
For the EU, there is the risk of a deteriorating relationship with Russia should Navalny be allowed to stay in Germany or another EU member state. A deterioration could result in the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, a project supported by Germany but opposed by the US and other EU member states. Relations between the EU and Russia have been at a low ebb since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, but there are reasons for both sides to maintain a level of dialogue. Nuclear security, for example, is likely to remain an issue where both sides will favour dialogue and the sharing of expertise and regulatory frameworks. The EU and NATO will likely have to decide whether their economic and security relationship with Russia is worth the consistent attacks by Putin on their respective ideologies and values. Navalny’s poisoning presents an opportunity to re-evaluate the relationship between Moscow and Brussels, but it is unlikely to affect Putin’s calculus and ambitions to remain in power.