Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
Irrespective of what happened to Aleksey Navalny, whether his alleged “poisoning” was a planned foreign intelligence operation from the start or a health incident that was opportunistically seized upon by Western pro-war factions as another weapon to stampede their respective governments into an escalation of conflict with Russia, it is now becoming clear l’affair Navalny was not the “game-changer” of the sort his Western or even domestic Russian backers had hoped. That is not to say it was not a “game-changer” at all, because the war of words over the alleged “poisoning” and the subsequent diplomatic stand-off concerning Navalny’s bail violation and defamation court proceedings did clarify the state of affairs between Russia, US, and EU, and might lead to a change in relations.
Shock and Awe
The information offensive surrounding Navalny’s situation, first when hospitalized in Germany and later in detention in Russia, was aimed at two audiences. The first was the Russian public which, judging by Western media coverage, was on the brink of a major outburst of discontent similar to that experienced by Western countries as a result of intermittent COVID-19 restrictions and economic misery they inflicted. Should hundreds of thousands or even millions of Russians be induced to come out into the streets and protest either for Navalny or against Vladimir Putin, it would constitute a show of political strength that might compel the Russian government, under pressure by economic special interests backing Navalny and by foreign governments, to make concessions. How far-reaching these concessions would be depend on the level of protest, with a Maidan-style outcome actually being contemplated by several political observers in the West. The other target was Europe, or specifically the European Union and Germany which has been under US pressure to abandon the North Stream 2 pipeline linking Germany and Russia. As this would enhance the security and prosperity of both parties to the deal and represent a step toward EU’s strategic autonomy by providing it with a source of energy not subject to US political whims, it was bound to provoke stiff resistance from the United States, its client states within the EU mostly located in Eastern Europe, and also from pro-Atlanticist factions within Germany and France. If the pro-Navalny demonstrations reached a certain critical mass and resulted in serious bloodshed, it is all but certain North Stream 2 would have been canceled under the pressure from suitably whipped up public opinion and Russia would have faced another round of Western sanctions. But that scenario plainly failed to materialize. The successive waves of demonstrations only grew weaker, and in each case were effectively countered by Russian police forces which acted with considerably greater restraint than US and European police forces do in similar cases.
The level of EU’s miscalculation was evident from the widespread surprise that Navalny actually found himself under detention upon returning home, in spite of the “hero send-off” he enjoyed in Europe. To rescue the situation, EU’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell was dispatched to Moscow in order to publicly demand Navalny’s “immediate and unconditional” release, and in response he was treated to the expulsion of three European diplomats for participating in the unsanctioned pro-Navalny protests. What is more, Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov bluntly stated that Russia was ready to break off relations with the EU, preferring to focus on relations with individual member-states which showed considerably greater promise than EU’s unconstructive virtue signaling. After Borrell returned to Brussels humiliated, facing calls for resignation even though he was set up for failure by the impossible instructions he was given, it briefly seemed that the Union would react strongly to the snub.
But it did not. Instead, European Union backtracked, imposing sanctions on only a handful of officials who in all likelihood have no financial assets or dealings in the West, and rejecting the idea of broad-based economic sanctions as well. Germany’s government officials reaffirmed the importance of North Stream 2 to its economy, and France’s President Macron, whose favorite hobby horse is EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy, tacitly approved of Germany’s position. Josep Borrell, for his part, signaled that the EU would pursue a policy of selective engagement with the Russian Federation, focusing on key issues of mutual interest. Finally, in a sign that l’affair Navalny was a spent force, Amnesty International UK revoked Navalny’s “prisoner of conscience” status. While this move provoked furious reactions by Navalny’s associates in Russia and his political and media backers in the West, Amnesty’s reversal followed Western diplomats’ quiet loss of interest in Navalny’s histrionics and abusive language at his Great Patriotic War veteran’s defamation trial in Moscow. Although in the end Navalny’s disappearance from EU agenda was driven by his at least temporarily diminished political usefulness—one would have had to spend the last decade in a coma to be unaware of his politics and rhetorical style.
For all the talk about “strategic autonomy”, EU still closely follows the US which suggests the rather mild reaction to Navalny’s detention did not occur against the wishes of Washington, D.C. Media reports that United States will not sanction any European firms associated with North Stream 2, and will levy sanctions only against a handful of Russian entities associated with its construction, indicates that the Biden administration is not yet keen on escalating conflict with Russia to the point of actually risking a forceful Russian response, in the form of retaliation against US social media, information technology giants, or other economic interests United States still has in Russia. While the Biden administration has announced measures against Russia would be forthcoming as “punishment” against a range of imagined offenses such as hacking and the Navalny case, US government spokespersons also stated that some of these measures would be invisible and not made public, raising the possibility that the actual US anti-Russia actions might be as restrained as EU’s. The increased European naval activity in the South China Sea suggests something akin to a US-EU quid pro quo. US respects EU’s economic interests inherent in its dealings with Russia and therefore refrains from third-party sanctions targeting European companies, and the EU establishes an image of a unified front with the US against China. The parameters of this cooperation are still unclear, however, Biden administration’s rhetoric suggest far greater anxiety about China’s growing power than about Russia’s.
The prospect of China becoming America’s “official main enemy” will not sit well with many governments and factions, who will naturally fear the loss of US interest in their neighborhood will force them to seek accommodation after they have burned their bridges with Moscow through rhetoric and economic measures, with backpedaling made difficult or downright impossible by the pressure from nationalist populists in their own countries. Actors capable of escalating Russia-West tensions include Ukraine, the Baltic States, and of course the ever-active British intelligence services who might be willing to stage yet another fake poisoning or chemical attack somewhere in the Middle East or even on their own soil. The main restraining factor here is the question how far they were willing, or able, to go in that respect before provoking Biden’s ire for attempting to hijack his foreign policy.