REVIEW - EU, US Sanction Russian Officials Over Navalny In Show Of Unity, Albeit With Nuances

REVIEW - EU, US Sanction Russian Officials Over Navalny in Show of Unity, Albeit With Nuances

BRUSSELS (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 04th March, 2021) The European Union has slapped sanctions on a few high-ranking Russian officials over opposition figure Alexey Navalny, acting in coordination with the Biden administration but stopping short of more hawkish approaches, like those promoted by opponents of the Nord Stream 2 project.

On Tuesday, the EU unveiled first sanctions under its new global human rights sanctions regime, designating four Russian officials over their "roles in the arbitrary arrest, prosecution and sentencing of Alexei Navalny, as well as the repression of peaceful protests in connection with his unlawful treatment."

The list includes Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin, Federal Penitentiary Service head Alexander Kalashnikov and National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov.

In a coordinated move hours later, the US imposed sanctions on seven senior Russian officials, including Federal Security Service (FSB) director Alexander Bortnikov, as well as 14 entities involved in biological and chemical agents production in Russia, Germany, and Switzerland. It became the first punitive action against Moscow since President Joe Biden took office and launched a comprehensive review of Russia policy.

Washington stresses that the actions are in response to "the Kremlin's use of chemical weapons" against Navalny, as well as his subsequent "arrest and imprisonment by the Russian government."

Russia denies the allegations that its intelligence officers used the military-grade nerve agent Novichok against Navalny, who upon returning from a medical treatment in Germany was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for violating his probation on his previous financial fraud conviction, which Moscow insists was unrelated to his political activism.

EU LAWMAKERS WANTED TOUGHER RESPONSE

EU sanctions on four Russian individuals have caused an outcry from the Left, Greens and some centrist parties in the European Parliament.

They want more significant sanctions, like those against "president Putin's inner circle." The "hawks" in parliament say that sanctions should also hit "oligarchs" linked to the government as well as Russian media "propagandists."

Finally, these "hawkish" lawmakers want to stop Nord Stream 2, once and for all, to the annoyance of Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, which wants to complete the gas pipeline, much needed by the EU.

The European Parliament clearly expressed its almost unanimous view during the January 19 debate. Back then, even Marco Zanni of Italy's right-wing Lega party was critical of Moscow. Now, he confirmed his position to Sputnik, stating that what has happened with Navalny is "unacceptable."

"Democracy should follow certain principles and rules. The EU and its member states did well to finally condemn what has happened. We cannot allow a partner with whom we cooperate and have a dialogue to use the judiciary and possible assassination, to silence political opposition. When it comes to civil rights, human and political rights, that must always be at the heart for our states, the EU and third countries," Zanni argued.

The Italian lawmaker at the same time agrees with top EU diplomat Josep Borrell that the bloc should still leave the door open for a dialogue with Russia.

"In China, human rights are not guaranteed either, though we signed an agreement with that country, closing our eyes because of the commercial interest of some. I think that needs to be changed, otherwise the EU and the member states will not be effective in calling for human rights to be respected," he said.

The reactions of traditional parties, in parliament and in the media, have been unanimously critical of Russia, without much nuance, but the parties in power, such as the Christian Democrats, still refrain from going beyond the call for individual sanctions.

The position of the Greens is, in contrast, to strongly push for stopping the nearly-completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

"We have to call on Putin to allow free speech for the upcoming elections as free as possible in Russia under Russian circumstances. We must also pronounce the responsibility of our governments like mine in Germany. The decision of the Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (where the NordStream 2 terminal is being built), who continues to defend the project that undermines democracy and solidarity with Russian society, Ukrainian and Polish society, is a shameful decision. Let's stop NordStream 2!" EU lawmaker Sergey Lagodinsky of Germany's Greens declared.

A very vocal critic of Russia, Guy Verhofstadt, is also one of the lawmakers who asked for maximum sanctions against Russia. He has repeated several times in the past weeks that "Europe needs the fastest possible more sanctions, broader sanctions on more Russians, to reach the oligarchs close to president Putin. And I think - even if I have never said that before - that even Nord Stream 2 has to be reconsidered and the project be stopped in that respect."

Europe, however, chose a more balanced approach to Navalny-related sanctions, according to Michel Liegeois, a professor at Belgium's University of Louvain and the head of the Crisis Study Centre.

"Diplomacy is a balancing art and it is delicate. I'll take another example than the present crisis with Moscow - China, which has an authoritarian regime and does not respect human rights, especially in Hong Kong.

Europe, facing China, cannot do nothing because it relates to our core values. Europe protested but on the other hand signed a major economic agreement with China ... It has always been like that. It's a balancing act," Liegeois told Sputnik.

Diplomacy, he noted, can integrate "ethical elements" but cannot stop all relations with governments you don't like.

"The EU must also speak to states which have a diametrically opposed political system and not the same frame of reference. With Russia, Europe must not cut ties. Josep Borrell applies this balancing act courageously, despite opposition," he said.

The task is all the more difficult today in the era of social networks, when politicians are "under constant pressure, expected to react immediately," but "rushing to conclusions is bad advice," the professor noted.

NUANCES BETWEEN EU, US SANCTIONS

Noting the "restrained" nature of the fresh sanctions, experts also point to differences in US and EU approaches.

"Basically, the EU sanctions Russia for attacks on human rights, arbitrary judgment etc, while the US sanctions Russia for using a 'chemical weapon.' We immediately see the difference in status, interests, and military thinking," Nina Bachkatov, politologist in University of Liege where she heads a Russia-Eurasia think tank, told Sputnik.

Biden's sanctions, she says, are also a part of his 'de-Trumpization' campaign, meant not only for international audience but also the domestic one.

"The head of FSB, Bortnikov is not an oligarch but an intelligence chief, and normally SVR and FSB participate in international meetings and exchanges. That could be annoying but otherwise I think that the members of such services are already limited in their contact with foreign countries and don't travel much," she added.

According to the expert, the wisest policy for Russia would be to stick to the principle: "Dogs bark, but the caravan goes on."

"Going into counter-sanctions while mocking this sanctions policy does not seem very helpful. Westerners do not care about the agricultural communities which have been affected by Russian counter-sanctions since 2014. The agri-business lobby is weak and has little political relay," Bachkatov said.

The problem with sanctions, however, is that no one is going to risk their political career to lift them, and it becomes a sort of a "frozen conflict," she admitted.

Thierry Mariani, an EU lawmaker from the French National Rally party, agrees that the US sanctions on Russia "are a little less light" than Europe's.

"Washington sanctions the boss of the Russian FSB. It's as if Russia was sanctioning the CIA boss by seizing his property in Russia... I don't believe the head of the CIA has any property in Russia. The same for the head of the FSB in America," he told Sputnik.

DOUBLE STANDARDS: WHAT ABOUT SAUDI PRINCE?

The French lawmaker stressed that the US administration slaps sanctions on Russia just days after "the new Biden administration and the CIA reveal that Prince Ben Salman of Saudi Arabia (MBS) is indeed the sponsor of the assassination and dismemberment of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi."

"What is Biden doing about this assassination of an opponent by the Saudi power? Nothing! No sanction[s] on Saudi Arabia and Washington limits itself to "advising Prince MBS to dissolve the unit responsible for the assassination." Human Rights are therefore rubbish for the United States. They forget everything and impose no sanctions when the country is an ally, and when the country is seen as the enemy, they apply sanctions and give resounding critical speeches," Mariani argued.

What is worrying, he said, is that "these bombastic decisions do not bode well and may lead to a lasting cooling of relations with Moscow," which is "not in Europe's interest at all."

EUROPE MISGUIDED ABOUT NAVALNY, CAN 'ONLY LOSE BIG'?

As Russia vows a response to the new sanctions, not necessarily a symmetrical one, some lawmakers express concerns that it would further undercut trade relations and leave EU business at a disadvantage.

"Unfortunately this crisis brings back anti-Russian sentiment that leads to irresponsible boycott calls and demands for sanctions that only push European businesses down as Russia responds by slapping sanctions on European products. Our European fruit and dairy producers know something about it," Filip Dewinter, a leading member of the right-wing Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party, told Sputnik.

The politician also questioned the wisdom of defending Navalny, who "has no political representation or weight in Russia."

"It is clear that when he treats the Chechen and Muslim republics in the South of Russia as 'cockroaches', it starts to give him bad marks with all the Left parties in Europe and with the NGOs. That is a bit funny, but the Europeans firmly believe their media about him. They portray him as the key opponent to President Putin," Dewinter said.

The EU, he insists, should stop follow "the American agenda which is very confrontational toward Russia," otherwise "Europe can only lose big."

Among possible areas of cooperation, he mentioned the pandemic and Russian coronavirus vaccines.

"We also badly need Russian gas and we must stop mixing politics and trade relations," Dewinter said.