Russia’s most recent treatment of its opposition leader, Alexei Navalny has triggered a potential diplomatic headache for the Europe and the West. It remains to be seen whether Putin and his government will break under internal and external pressure calling for better treatment of the opposition politician and his supporters.
Alexei Anatolievich Navalny was arrested on 17th January 2021 and sent to jail for 30 days on returning to Russia, after recovering from a near-fatal nerve agent attack in the country last August.
It has been alleged that the opposition leader had violated his parole conditions from his 2014 conviction of embezzlement. Then on the 2nd February, Navalny was sentenced to 2 years and eight months in a prison colony due to these parole violations. The opposition leader believes that his imprisonment is politically motivated with the European Union (EU) and the United States calling for his release.
Since the start of this saga, mass protests have occurred in this country calling for Navalny’s release. There are estimates of over 100,000 people turning up to these demonstrates in over 100 Russian cities, most of which have taken place during sub-zero weather conditions. Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have experienced a surge in posts relating to these protests, amid threats of fines from by the Russian government for broadcasting the events.
More than 5,130 people have been arrested since the start of these protests, and this number will likely increase. Putin has labelled the current protests as “illegal” and “dangerous” while accusing the United States of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. The president has also expelled three diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland for their alleged roles in the protests.
In response to this, the three countries expelled a Russian diplomat, which has been seen as a tit-for-tat move.
Meanwhile, the EU is considering levying sanctions on Russia due to this situation.
The crackdown of these protests is a horrible sight for many western observers, and western leaders are not holding back in their reactions to these protests. If that is calling for the release of Navalny, to end the crackdown on protestors, banning Russian diplomats or flirting with the idea of sanctions, the West is portraying an aggressive stance against Russia.
The question is: will this come at a cost?
The answer: a resounding yes.
An aggressive response to Russia by the West, potentially places further strain on an already complex diplomatic and economic relationship. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, has said that Russia is ready to split ties with the EU if the institution pursues fresh sanctions. In doing so, not only will these sanctions or the potential cutting of ties create division and hostility, but the EU will lose another critical relationship from a global super power.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden will also need to tread carefully on this issue and as well as his general stance on Russia . The days of “rolling over” for Russia might be over for the United States, but by vocalising such a tone, this may tarnish the already strained US-Russia relations. The EU, United States and other western powers must consider if a relationship with Russia is worth pursuing in the long term. The current rhetoric points to a west prepared to walk away from this relationship, despite the potential fallout.
Alexei Navalny’s focus on corruption and channelling of anti-Putin frustration has resulted not only in social media success, but his crowning as the unofficial leader of the Russian opposition. Far-left Irish MEP Clare Daly claimed in a Russia Today interview this week that Navalny was a ‘puppet’ and that ‘Who rules Russia is a matter for the Russian people, not the EU’. The irony, of course, is that, given Russia’s highly corrupt oligarchical ruling system, it is difficult to gauge what the verdict of its population would be, if given a free and fair chance.
It is however worth pointing out that Navalny is no angel. In 2007 he backed Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and called for the expulsion of Georgian people from Russia, referring to them as ‘rodents’ (grizuni) – an ethnic slur often used by Russian nationalists.
Despite this, many Liberal-minded Russians feel they have nowhere to look but Navalny. In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, journalist Matvei Ganapolsky explained: “I am completely pragmatic in my attitude toward Navalny. For me, he is a tool. His opinions about the authorities in Moscow, about the anti-Kremlin mood, completely correspond to my own,” Ganapolsky said. “I want to see honest elections in Moscow. I don’t have any other candidate.”
Whatever future lies ahead for Russia, and it is in no way settled, Navalny’s focus on lambasting corruption, claiming swathes of the Caucuses and Crimea for Russia does not set the tone for a magical thawing of Moscow’s relationship with the West.