The poisoning of Alexei Navalny on an internal flight in Russia poses additional problems to the West. German experts concluded that a nerve agent from the novichok family was used, Moscow flatly denies. How to respond? Our columnist Mark Galeotti pleads for thinking out of the box, as was done after Skripal. But expelling diplomats, ending Nord Stream 2, imposing sanctions, go to court: does it help? Maybe it is time for repetitive symbolic ánd practical rebukes. Ad nauseam.
Navalny transported from Omsk to Berlin
What is to be done after the poisoning of Alexei Navalny? That is the foreign policy challenge of the moment for the West, and one that has inevitably become a barometer of wider attitudes about relations with Russia. Some argue that nothing useful can be done. Others demand immediate and massive punitive measures. The trouble is that there are no easy answers – but on the other hand this does offer an opportunity for more imaginative and unconventional options.
First of all, of course, there is the issue that even if one accepts the verdict of the doctors at the Charité hospital in Berlin that Navalny was poisoned – most do, Moscow’s doesn’t – then that still does not provide absolute proof that the Kremlin was behind it. To be sure, the Kremlin has absolute moral responsibility, having presided over the rise of a climate where magnates can and do persecute and even kill their enemies. Furthermore, while Putin may not have instigated the attack, indeed may well even not have wanted it, for all the dangers Navalny posed, nonetheless his regime has retrospectively blessed it by wholeheartedly launching a campaign of denial, misdirection and cover-up.
The next problem is one of jurisdiction. This was a Russian citizen, apparently poisoned on Russian soil. The fact that he is now recovering in a German hospital offers no magical transfer of jurisdiction. Of course, any government can impose whatever sanctions it wants for whatever reason. But it means that if Germany opts to treat this as a law enforcement matter and launch an investigation, it would have legal, let alone practical and political challenges getting Russia to take it seriously.
Let’s be honest: if Germany or the EU seriously demand to be involved directly in any investigation on Russian soil, then this would not only be rebuffed but also turned against them. Before long, the next Syrian would-be migrant who washes up dead on Europe’s shores will trigger a demand from Damascus to have an equal role in an international investigation of Europe’s ‘culpable negligence.’ Or some other such gambit.
Because the agent used has been identified as being part of the novichok family, it is being described as ‘chemical warfare.’ On one level it seems something of a stretch to parallel slipping poison into a man’s tea or – as one alternative theory has it – spraying something on his clothes, with killing hundreds of men, women and children with sarin in Syria in 2013. Nonetheless, the decision to use novichok – itself likely intended as a signal and warning – rather than other poisons does open up other technical responses.
Already, NATO has called on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to investigate, and for Russia to permit ‘an impartial, international investigation’ to prove that, as it claims, it no longer has a chemical warfare programme.
The OPCW has called this a ‘grave concern’, but its capacity to force Russia to participate in an investigation – especially before it could have destroyed or contaminated any evidence – is minimal. In these circumstances, it can ‘name and shame,’ but the Kremlin has proven pretty resistant to shaming in the past.
The usual suspects
So technical options might be limited, but there are always the usual diplomatic instruments: personal and economic sanctions. The trouble is that these are largely either tokenistic and meaningless or counter-productively excessive.
Expelling a few Russian diplomats from Berlin, no doubt followed by an analogous tit-for-tat move by Moscow, might satisfy the need to ‘do something,’ but is pretty meaningless. Indeed, one could argue that anything reducing the capacity of nations to talk sensibly to each other at times like this is a downright mistake.
After the last use of novichok, against double-agent Sergei Skripal in 2018, this was turned into something meaningful when more than 138 Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover were expelled across the globe by a coalition of nations which went beyond the usual EU, NATO or similar blocs. This was significant because it caught Moscow by surprise, made a substantial (if likely temporary) dent on its intelligence operations and represented a public rebuke to a country which, after all, aspires to be considered a great, global power.
That was, truth to tell, a triumph of British diplomacy. If something similar is to be done after Navalny’s poisoning, someone will have to step forward to be the prime mover. The logical candidate in the circumstances would be Germany, but is it willing and able to put the same effort into such a response? London could reasonably conclude that its relations with Moscow could hardly get much worse, but Berlin is both constitutionally less inclined to pick a fight and has more to lose. (Especially with the prospect of a Russian coronavirus vaccine perhaps around the corner.)
Another kind of sanctions that some immediately turn to are personal sanctions under various ‘Magnitsky Laws’ or similar legislation, barring named individuals and freezing their assets. With so little known about this case, whom to target? The doctors in Omsk? The person who served Navalny his tea in Tomsk? These are not ultimately to blame, nor will targeting them in any way discomfit whoever was really responsible.
What is needed is a touch of malicious imagination rather than a stolid deployment of the usual instruments.
Finally, economic sanctions are being mooted, especially directed at the near-complete Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Angela Merkel had previously said that its fate ought to be kept separate from any response to the Navalny case, although it is possible she will have to change her mind under political pressure.
This would undoubtedly be a blow to Moscow, but would also be unpopular in countries such as the Czech Republic and Italy, which were counting on the pipeline. It would also run the risk of being portrayed as a capitulation to the United States, whose hostility to the pipeline was, many suspect, at least in part because they want instead to sell Europe their more expensive liquid natural gas. In other words, economic measures will inevitably also have serious economic costs in a Europe which, looking towards paying for its coronavirus recovery, may well not be happy to incur any more. They will also create political discontents, which the Kremlin would do what it can overtly and covertly to encourage.
This is not a counsel of despair, though. If the usual measures do not work, then instead of simply going through the motions to satisfy a desire to be seen to be responding, this could be a chance to consider more imaginative options. Much of the impact of the post-Skripal collective expulsions was, after all, that this was unexpected. Moscow naturally gameplans what it considers to be the likely outcomes of its various adventures and provocations. Anything that makes it doubt its capacity accurately to judge the likely fallout is likely to incline it to be more cautious.
Navalny in Novosibirsk, shortly before his intoxication
There are, for a start, symbolic rebukes. Navalny’s chief aide Leonid Volkov, wrote on Facebook that ‘I really want the international community to make sure that nobody, under any circumstances, ever shakes hands with Vladimir Putin again.’ This may be difficult, in that a president is a representative of a state as well as a person, and to disrespect one is to disrespect the other, but in many ways the approach that can be taken is that demonstrated by former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he met Putin at the G20 summit in 2014. When Putin approached him and stuck out his hand, Harper accepted the gesture but said ‘I guess I'll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you, you need to get out of Ukraine.’
Symbolic rebukes of Putin need to be repeated. Ad nauseam.
If Western leaders really want to make a point of reminding Putin that there are costs to poisoning Navalny – and the Kremlin’s assumption is that Western memories are short and weak – then they could commit publicly to rebuking him as the first thing they say, every time they meet him. Their protocol officers will likely be horrified, but as meeting follows meeting, this will probably do the best thing possible: begin to get under Putin’s skin.
If that sounds too woolly, then practical rebukes ought to be asymmetric and meaningful. There is a regrettable tendency to feel that the response needs to mirror the provocation – malicious disinformation? Then we’ll close down a media outlet? – regardless of whether this is the most effective policy, and how this also keeps the West predictable. Instead, the response ought to be driven by an assessment of what is most likely to make an impact.
Want to punish Moscow? Maybe allocate funds to support Belarusian civil society (if Lukashenko consolidates his rule with Russian support)? Or for more and better media coverage of events in Belarus, supporting local independent journalists?
Or offer Georgia more counter-intelligence cooperation? Or an expansion of projects such as USAID’s YES-Georgia (‘Supporting Youth and Women Entrepreneurship in Georgia’) programme intended to encourage grassroots Western orientation?
Or offer a €10 million reward to whomever can provide proof – proof – of whoever was behind Navalny’s poisoning?
Or identify specific skills the West has and which are relatively scarce in Russia, whether intensive-care nurses, or programmers, or plumbers, or engineers, and offer Russians with them and their families fast-track residence permits if they emigrate?
In praise of malicious imagination
The point is that if – if – Western countries really want to punish Moscow, then what is needed is a touch of malicious imagination rather than a stolid deployment of the usual instruments.
There are, of course, risks. It may play to the Kremlin’s own legitimating narrative that a tough tsar is needed to protect the Motherland from a hostile West. As such, any measures must be balanced with stepped-up outreach to ordinary Russians to press home the message that the West loves Russians, but just has a problem with this administration. It may also, in the short term, make the Kremlin escalate its political warfare, too. But this does offer the chance to make a real impact, and make the West look both more serious and less predictable.
Or we do nothing. And when the next opposition figure dies, we can name a square after him or her.