Navalny's Courage Should Wake Up the West

Even by the standards of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, this is an ugly moment.

A Moscow court this week sentenced the Kremlin’s loudest critic to three-and-a-half years in jail. In a tragicomic touch, Alexey Navalny is accused of failing to comply with a summons while in Germany recovering from an attack with military-grade poison in which Russia denies any involvement. Out on the streets, police beat his supporters and detained almost 1,500 people. Thousands more were hauled away over two weekends of protests.

With Russia teetering on the edge of becoming a far darker place and nationwide parliamentary elections on the horizon, Western leaders have a vital task: To add pressure. They will simultaneously need to find new ways to keep talking on the few areas where agreement still exists, including Covid-19 vaccinations.

Outrage from abroad and hand-wringing statements of “deep concern” have never changed minds swiftly. The Kremlin has weathered restrictions of various kinds since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. That’s resulted in a self-sufficient fortress with the same administration still in charge. 

Making matters worse, the Kremlin’s concern with maintaining a pretense of popular support appears to be fading. There’s now a clear focus is on silencing opposition voices at all costs, even if that means economic punishment, international ignominy and protest. The treatment of detained protesters and journalists, including the editor-in-chief of an independent news website now being held in an overcrowded cell for retweeting a joke, is alarming.

Fresh sanctions are still vital. For one, there’s a growing sense of vulnerability. The Kremlin has tools other than brute force at its disposal to manage this crisis such as arrests, misinformation, even cash handouts after frugal support throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. But the blunt response so far shows a 44-year-old former lawyer’s fearlessness, command of social media and the mere hint of an alternative future amounts to a menace the Kremlin is struggling to handle on its own terms.

There’s room to inflict extra pain. The U.S., for example, can punish the use of nerve agent in clear violation of international law, as it has before. The West can specifically target technology Russia cannot easily obtain from elsewhere. A coordinated effort between the European Union, the U.K. and U.S. would have more impact, even if based on the modest punitive powers of the Magnitsky Act, which focuses on asset freezes and travel bans. The sheer use of the name would irk Russia: Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer who accused Russian officials of being involved in large-scale tax fraud; he died in custody after being refused medical treatment.

The net can be widened too. Russia’s wealthiest were targeted in earnest for the first time in 2018, and there’s evidence that caused strain. Navalny’s team has drawn up a suggested list of names to consider, some with homes abroad.

Maria Shagina, who studies sanctions at the University of Zurich, says tighter anti-money laundering rules and tougher investment criteria can also be used to squeeze the elite, denying them the Western lifestyles they covet. Voicing outrage while allowing London bankers, public relations advisers and divorce lawyers to benefit from oligarchs’ wealth is certainly not a good look. It’s worth bearing in mind that Russia’s richest are ageing and in the midst of a gargantuan wealth transfer.

A pricklier matter is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, led by Russian gas giant Gazprom. It’s a project whose energy benefits to Europe have long been overshadowed by the wedge it’s driven between Germany and Western allies, raising questions about the potential damage to Ukraine, a key transit route, while benefiting companies supportive of Putin’s regime. Simply scrapping the project at this late stage would send the strongest possible signal. Next best would be for Germany to lean on companies to suspend work until Russia shows progress, while setting limits on the pipeline’s eventual use and providing long-term guarantees for Kyiv.

Sanctions require patience and much in the medium term will depend on how Russia’s economy performs, says Iikka Korhonen of the Bank of Finland Institute for Economies in Transition. While the economy contracted less sharply than expected in 2020, Russian’s real disposable incomes continue to languish. For now, Moscow is willing to bear the cost in order to advance other goals, but that may change.

In the meantime, the West should also engage with Russia where it can, starting with basic demonstrations of support for the pro-democracy movement, such as foreign diplomats attendance at Navalny’s hearing this week. It should keep talking with activists, assisting members of civil society and maintaining a visa regime that allows plenty of Russians to travel to see other realities.

And there’s room for conversations in the few areas of common ground which remain, from arms control — as U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin showed last month — to scientific work in the Arctic and even coronavirus vaccines after encouraging data on Russia’s Sputnik jab was published this week. 

Navalny, in moves like his devastating “Vladimir the Poisoner” courtroom address this week, has shown exemplary courage. Now Europe, Britain and a new Biden administration need to do the same.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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