paper tiger diplomacy: a person or thing that appears threatening but is ineffectual.
~ Definition from Oxford Languages
Alexi Navalny, a name only heard as a pretext to bad news.
In late August 2020, news broke that Russia’s fiercest anti-corruption activist and politician had been evacuated to Germany for treatment following a suspected poisoning. Weeks later, scientists in Sweden, France and Germany all confirmed the poison to be Novichok, a nerve agent developed in secret by the USSR. As many will remember, the same poison was used against Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, in Salisbury in 2018.
How did the Kremlin respond to allegations that they, the only owners of Novichok, were to blame for the assassination attempts against the governments most prominent critic? Blatant denial. Did they seek to substantiate or pretend this denial was plausible? No, because they have nothing to fear from the West, where strongly worded statements are the extent of an EU scolding. The mantle of resisting Russian corruption has been left to the EU as the US is left reeling after four years of Trumpism. Navalny’s poisoning is the newest epicentre of the ongoing EU-Russia tension, and if the EU picks up the gauntlet it could spell success for Navalny’s war against corruption and firm up Russia’s ailing democracy.
Following the activist’s miraculous recovery, he wasted no time returning to Russia to continue the fight. Though the Kremlin sought to silence their harshest critic, the poisoning has instead made him a martyr. Political repression is high in Russia, and Navalny has already suffered dearly for his opposition to Putin’s regime. In 2013, his brother was imprisoned under fabricated charges of embezzlement; he too was charged but received a postponed sentence. After touching down in Russia, Navalny was arrested on the same embezzlement charges, but not before uploading a video exposing the billion-dollar mansion on the Black Seacoast given to President Putin by Russian oligarchs. The public response was immense, if the arrest of Navalny wasn’t enough the video of Putin’s new mansion galvanised those already angry at corruption and failing bureaucracy.
The first day of protests in late January saw thousands - 40,000 in Moscow alone - in 110 cities, braving temperatures as low as -50°c to voice their anger. Russia is at a demographic tipping point, in which younger generations plugged into Navalny’s social media campaign outnumber those who grew up in the Soviet Union and watch the state-owned TV news. The number of citizens willing to accept authoritarian corruption and a usurpation of democratic values is dwindling, and the Kremlin is feeling the heat. Navalny’s return to Russia was an extremely bold play, it keeps him in the spotlight and allows his message to spread. If he’s imprisoned or assassinated the Russian people are at least watching, anymore foul play from Putin will therefore be agonisingly public and lead to greater dissent and rioting.
If change is to take place, then international actors must get behind Navalny or risk the strongest attempt at democratic reforms from failing. Similar riots in 2011 were met with token investments from the government in Moscow and St Petersburg to quiet the middle classes, this cannot be allowed to happen again. While the EU is always first to write letters of condemnation, without a hard-line response Navalny’s campaign remains naked among the wolves. A genuine protective cloak, through targeted pressure, will massively support the Russian people and pave the way to fixing Russia’s widespread corruption. The most critical response for the EU is to cancel Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany.
The EU is, however, a house divided on its policy towards Russia, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline offers little commercial value and is in fact a pet project of Putin’s, ceded to him by Angela Merkle who wishes to foster a working relationship with Russia. On the other hand, France, supported by the ex-eastern bloc nations, has called for a harder line when considering Russia’s corruption and blatant rejection of democratic processes. Worse still, the pipeline creates a relationship of energy reliance for Germany and following the agreement to buy the Sputnik V vaccine, further reduces the capacity for criticism by the EU on Russian despotism.
This January EU officer Borrell was sent to discuss vaccines and Navalny with the Kremlin and, to no one’s surprise, he could not free Navalny. The time for sending ministers armed with nothing but international condemnation has come to an end. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline represents the only major chip the EU has, if Europe walked away it would not only embarrass the Kremlin but show them the grave seriousness of their actions, and that the EU will not tolerate them. With this, threats of economic sanctions would carry far more weight and cull the pattern of poisonings and the corruption of democracy.
Alexi Navalny, a name that one day could be the pretext to good news. But this will not happen alone. With the USA wallowing in its own internal democratic issues, Russia has abandoned any efforts to appear democratic as the Kremlin perceives no international repercussions. Unless action is taken by the EU to show this isn’t the case Navalny may not be the last to be poisoned with Novichok. Following years of declining living standards, political repression and the recent mansion exposé the Russian public has grown wearisome. Navalny’s newfound pre-eminence in the eyes of the people could, with hard-line pressure from the EU, lead to enough momentum to cause real political change.