Will Navalny's Poisoning Force Germany to Get Tough on Russia?

BERLIN — Chancellor ’s bedside visit to Aleksei A. Navalny after he emerged from a coma while recovering from a poisoning was not a secret, her office insisted. Nor was it official.

Ms. Merkel’s meeting with Mr. Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, was a purely private affair, her spokesman said.

Neither Mr. Navalny’s full military police escort to the Charité hospital upon his arrival in Berlin by air ambulance in August nor the dispatching of a security detail that has watched over him ever since is any indication of official favor, Steffen Seibert, the chancellor’s spokesman said.

“From the first day, the German government has made it clear that Mr. Navalny was here in Germany on humanitarian reasons,” Mr. Seibert said.

But the public and official attention surrounding Mr. Navalny’s arrival and treatment in Germany after his poisoning has raised this question: Will Berlin now take a tougher stance against Moscow amid ongoing opposition protests in Belarus and fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

“Of course, one always thinks that a new low point in German-Russian relations has been reached, then it gets even worse, and the next thing happens,” said Dr. Stefan Meister, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s South Caucasus Office.

“With every point the pressure grows, also from the public, for the German government to harden its stance toward Russia.”

Still, experts are skeptical that either Berlin or the European Union has the political will to take concrete action, or to unite split interests, that would send a clear message to Russia.

Russia has maintained that it played no role in the poisoning of Mr. Navalny; last week the foreign ministry in Moscow accused Germany of dramatizing the episode. German and other European experts, though, say Mr. Navalny was attacked with a military-grade chemical from the Novichok group, a Soviet-designed chemical weapon.

Use of the substance would be a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention to which Moscow is a signatory, raising the prospect that Germany could lead the European Union to enact painful sanctions against Moscow.

The watchdog for that convention, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is expected to release in the coming days the results of its own analysis of biomedical samples collected from Mr. Navalny by its team of experts, the agency said last week.

But Mr. Meister said he does not see the E.U.’s 27 members finding a consensus to enact sanctions. That is especially so, he said, after the failure of the bloc last week to impose economic sanctions on the leader of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, after the fraudulent election in that country, crackdown on opposition leaders, and beatings and arrests of peaceful protesters.

“The political will to take a harder stance against Russia is absent,” Mr. Meister said of the European Union.

He added that Berlin’s own policy toward Moscow remained “stuck in its internal contradictions and compromises.”

Nevertheless, over the past six years, since the Russians sent soldiers without insignia — the so-called “little green men” — into Crimea, Berlin’s position toward Moscow has shifted gradually, said Gustav C. Gressel, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

The pro-Russia stance that for decades has been the trademark of the center-left Social Democrats — currently junior partners in Ms. Merkel’s governing coalition — has been chipped away at by Moscow’s increasingly bold steps toward Berlin. These include carrying out a cyberattack against the German Parliament in 2015, and the daylight murder of a former Chechen commander in a Berlin park last year.

“All of those who call for appeasement, insisting that we have to respect Russia, are becoming less popular,” Mr. Gressel said, and increasingly, it is the hard-liners against Russia who are being heard.

That does not translate into immediate action on Germany’s part, however. Early calls to cancel the nearly completed, $11 billion Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany have faded, and Ms. Merkel’s government has insisted it will seek a European response to the poisoning.

But from the outset Ms. Merkel has taken an unusually personal interest in Mr. Navalny’s fate. She granted him swift entry to Germany even though most Russians are barred, given the threat of the coronavirus, and personally announced in notably harsh terms the discovery that Novichok had turned up in the tests on Mr. Navalny — which the chancellor in an unusually sharp tone called a “crime.”

Speaking to reporters in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Monday, President of France echoed the chancellor’s demand for Russia to explain what had happened to Mr. Navalny before a meeting of the European Council, part of the European Union’s executive arm, on Thursday and Friday. The poisoning has been added to that meeting’s agenda.

“This is very clearly a murder attempt carried out on Russian soil, against a Russian opposition leader with a chemical agent manipulated in Russia,” Mr. Macron told the reporters, according to Reuters. “It is therefore up to Russia to provide clarifications.”

A European version of the United States’s Magnitsky Act — which sanctions those found to be in violation of human rights — would give the bloc an additional tool to use against Moscow in Mr. Navalny’s case. But even if Europe does pull together its own version, Mr. Meister expects that those affected would be limited largely to individuals who do not regularly conduct business outside of Russia.

The bigger question, though, will be how Russia decides to treat Mr. Navalny once he returns home as he has said he plans to do, said Janis Kluge, an analyst for Eastern Europe with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

President Vladimir V. Putin has never publicly mentioned Mr. Navalny’s name in 20 years of speeches and interviews. But Mr. Navalny has now met with the German chancellor, whether officially or otherwise, and his poisoning has become the focus of an investigation by an international institution to which Russia is a signatory member.

“It’s about how Moscow now deals with the case, much more than about Mr. Navalny himself,” Mr. Kluge said. “Russia could have at least launched an investigation into what happened to him, but the fact that they haven’t done so yet shows how little Moscow really cares that Europe and Germany are shocked.”

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