With the European Union considering levying further sanctions against Russia over the treatment of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin is maneuvering to get out in front of the matter and turn any talk of sanctions into a PR disaster for the EU. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned that Russia is prepared to sever ties with the EU should that supra-national body impose economically damaging sanctions. In an online interview, Lavrov was asked if an EU-Russia break loomed on the horizon and if Russia was prepared for such a possibility. He assured the interviewer that Russia is ready for that and explained how a break in ties could be triggered if EU sanctions “create risks for our economy, including in the most sensitive areas.”
Over the past week Russia and the EU have expelled three of each other’s diplomats. Russia started by expelling three EU diplomats who allegedly attended an illegal pro-Navalny protest. Brussels rejected the accusation and a few days later the favor was returned. Germany, Poland and Sweden expelled three Russian diplomats.
The prospect of Russia severing ties with the EU bloc purely over economic sanctions is quite low. There are other factors at work here which are influencing the Russian government’s tough talk. One is the need for a scapegoat. Historically, in times of internal political discord, Russia looks beyond its borders for an external source to hang responsibility on. Something similar is taking place now. External political support for Navalny cannot be allowed to increase and play a role in domestic affairs. The scope of the protests taking place in the aftermath of Navalny’s arrest has created an opportunity for pro-democracy foreign actors to do just that. This, in turn, has prompted the Kremlin to adopt a swagger and warn the EU that any economic sanctions will bring relations to a halt.
From the EU point of view, actually bringing about sanctions against Russia now would be nothing short of a miracle. The bloc is terribly divided when it comes to crafting policy regarding Russia. To put it simply, member-states still cannot reach an agreement on how to deal with the Putin government. Some governments are looking to reset EU-Russia relations. Just let bygones be bygones and start fresh. At the same time there are other member-states, especially those in Eastern Europe who once lived under Moscow’s thumb, who want to adopt a stronger, less conciliatory stance towards Russia. Until these two sides are willing to compromise, the prospects for a united EU strategy on Russia are not very auspicious.