GP Insights # 466, 6 February 2021
On 5 February, Russia expelled diplomats from Germany, Sweden, and Poland for joining the protests in support of opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who was jailed earlier last week. In its statement, the Russian foreign ministry said the diplomats had taken part in "illegal demonstrations" held on 23 January and "such actions do not correspond to their diplomatic status. Russia expects that in the future, the diplomatic missions of Sweden, Poland and Germany and their personnel will strictly follow international law norms."
The diplomats' home countries have condemned the expulsions along with the UK, France and the EU. German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass denounced the expulsion as being "in no way justified." Sweden said the claim was unfounded and said it reserved the right to an appropriate response. Poland reiterated that the expulsion could lead to the "further deepening of the crisis in bilateral relations." EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who is currently in Russia, on behalf of the EU, said he "strongly condemned this decision and rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats."
What is the background?
First, a new low in EU-Russia relation. The expulsions were announced in the immediate context of Borrell's meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Borrell is the first senior EU official to travel to Russia since 2017 and had sought to extend an olive branch to Moscow when he called for the EU to approve the Sputnik vaccine. However, the expulsions are timely messages to the West on Moscow's brazenness. Since the claims of Russia's support to Belarus to the poisoning of its strongest critic Alexei Navalny in Berlin, the relation between EU and Russia has remained stiff. In 2018, similar was the response from the UK and the US in expelling Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK. Relations between the two had also soured over energy issues when on 21 January, the European Parliament members called on the EU to immediately stop work on the Nord Stream 2 as it "violates the EU's common energy security policy."
Second, dipping human rights record and culture of impunity in Russia. Navalny's arrest and subsequent imprisonment for his campaign against corruption is not the first act of human rights violation in Russia. On 12 June 2019, the Russian police detained over 200 people at a protest march in Moscow demanding the release of the investigative journalist IvGolunov. Russia ranks 149th out of 180 countries for press freedom, according to an annual index published by international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
Third, the slow return of the Transatlantic condemnation of Russia. Along with Germany, Poland and Sweden, France and the US has joined in condemning Russia's decision to expel the diplomats. This collective condemnation had been seemingly absent during Trump's tenure which was marred with his bonhomie for Putin despite alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 US election. The US President Joe Biden said there would be no "rolling over" to the Kremlin any more under his watch.
What does it mean?
First, despite tensions, the EU has not engaged in constructive criticism of Russia. Instead, they have come together to negotiate on the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris climate agreement. The EU is still Moscow's most significant trade and investment partner, and Merkel on 6 February has said Berlin's stance on the Nord Stream 2 remains "unaffected". Thus, it is difficult to foresee any untoward pushback from the EU yet. Second, international pressure didn't alter Russia's defiance on human rights and freedom in 2014. It probably will not now as the hallmarks of Moscow's preparation to handle the "Navalny issue" is the same as it did with the Crimean crises.