The European Union has plenty of pressing “domestic” issues to tackle, including the double impact of coronavirus and Brexit, but crises facing its eastern neighbours and relations with Russia are set to dominate a summit this week.
EU leaders meeting on Thursday and Friday are expected to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials who allegedly played a role in the rigging of last month’s presidential election and then in brutally suppressing peaceful protests.
They will also discuss deadly clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which threaten stability in the wider South Caucasus region where Russia and Turkey vie for influence and which serves as an important export route for oil and gas.
For EU members that want tougher action against the Kremlin, such as Poland and the Baltic countries, Navalny’s plight is yet more evidence that Russia is a rogue state that refuses to change and sees conciliatory talk as a sign of weakness.
For others – including France, an advocate of “strategic dialogue” with Moscow – the EU must defend its principles while accepting that it must work with Russia to resolve issues in places such as Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as farther afield in flashpoints such as Syria.
“The way we see it, is that if we want to build sustainable peace on the European continent, we have to work with Russia,” French president Emmanuel Macron said in Lithuania this week. “We can’t act as if Europe were an island far away from Russia.”
Mr Macron said the EU must be “pragmatic” in its approach to Belarus, imposing sanctions on the regime while maintaining dialogue with Russia “because we will not be able to achieve results here without the participation of President [Vladimir] Putin at this stage.”
The EU tried to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials last month, only for Cyprus to prevent the move in anger at the bloc’s failure to take tougher action against Turkey in a row over gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
Ankara has now agreed to discuss maritime claims with Athens, and Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias was in Nicosia on Wednesday for talks that could see Cyprus drop its opposition to sanctions on Belarus – an issue that places “the EU’s credibility at stake”, according to its foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
The Navalny poisoning prompted fresh calls for Berlin to pull the plug on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine and eastern EU members;German chancellor Angela Merkel has strongly resisted pressure to kill the project in the past, however.
“We are now waiting for the results of the OPCW ... and then we will discuss necessary reactions with European partners,” she said on Wednesday, referring to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is preparing a report on the case.
The Kremlin’s response has only undermined those in Paris and Berlin who want pragmatic dialogue with Moscow.
Russia has thrown out a hail of contradictory and often absurd denials about the Navalny affair, including suggestions that Germany helped to stage it and, according to French daily Le Monde, a claim by Putin to Macron that Navalny may have poisoned himself.
Russia has also redoubled its defence of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, offering him financial and security support while accepting his deeply flawed election and crackdown on protesters. Their huge rallies are not a show of Belarusians’ opposition to their autocratic ruler of 26 years, Moscow argues, but a western-led special operation to oust a Kremlin ally.