The four biggest problems on Vladimir Putin’s desk
Russia facing EU sanctions as 450,000 Alexei Navalny supporters prepare to hit nation’s streets
European leaders are meeting today to discuss sanctions against Russia amid rising tensions over the Kremlin’s military build-up on the Ukraine border and the deteriorating health of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Poland is leading the push for stronger action against Vladimir Putin’s regime and “expects a green light” after Russia was accused yesterday of also being linked to a 2014 bombing in the Czech Republic, Politico’s Brussels Playbook reports.
The threat of further sanctions came as allies of Navaly announced that planned protests will go ahead on Wednesday, with more than 450,000 people signing a pledge to attend demonstrations in dozens of cities across Russia.
The EU Foreign Affairs Council is meeting today for talks expected to be dominated by discussions about sanctions against Russia. Warsaw is pushing for tough action, although the “prevailing attitude in countries including Germany and Italy is to wait and see”, says Politico.
Russia has been massing troops since mid-March on its border with Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelensky last week called on Nato to speed up his country’s application for membership to formalise the support of its Western allies.
“We need to see a return to a ceasefire and to dialogue. And above all we must ensure a respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told Politico.
“EU sanctions have sent a clear message and have had a dissuading effect... We don’t want a confrontation, but both the EU and Nato must be ready to confront provocations and further escalations.”
The US has already taken action, imposing new sanctions on Russia last week that target individuals and companies accused of being involved in efforts to interfere in US elections and of conducting cyberattacks.
The Czech Republic yesterday expelled 18 Russian diplomats over suspicions that Moscow was behind a 2014 explosion at an ammunition depot in the eastern Zlin region. Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Czech security services had found “unequivocal evidence” that unit 29155 of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service were involved in the attack.
The blast “tore apart” the depot, with “windows in nearby buildings blown out and local schools evacuated”, the BBC reports. Two men who worked at the site, in a forest at Vrbetice, were killed.
Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek has compared the attack to the 2018 poisonings in the English town of Salisbury, while PM Babis has released a statement saying “the Czech Republic is a sovereign state and must respond accordingly to these unprecedented findings”.
Russia has denied being linked to the explosion, and has retaliated to the expulsion of its diplomats by kicking 20 Czech officials out of Moscow.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the Committee for Foreign Affairs in Russia’s upper house of parliament, told state news agency Tass that the allegations were “nonsense”.
“We’ve never done anything like this in our life,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. Why do we need to blow up something in the Czech Republic? This is just a contrived situation in order to support the Americans.”
As the Financial Times notes, “relations between the Kremlin and the West are at their worst for several years”, with the build-up of troops in Ukraine also fuelling the “renewed tension between Washington and Moscow”.
The plan behind the massing of troops on Russia’s border with Ukraine and in the annexed Crimea region remains unclear. What is known is that Russia has around 40,000 troops on its eastern border and a further 40,000 stationed in Crimea.
General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s former supreme allied commander in Europe, told Politico that the Kremlin might be preparing for a bid to “take more of the Donbass region” or to “move more troops into the region and solidify Russia’s hold on it”.
However, Breedlove said that it is more likely that Moscow hopes to solve a water shortage in Crimea by creating “a land bridge from Russia or the Russian-held territories”. The annexed territory has suffered water shortages after Ukraine cut the main canal delivering its water in response to the 2014 occupation.
Other pundits have speculated that the military action is part of an effort to test Joe Biden’s response. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius notes that the US president has “tried to signal a firmer stance toward Russia since taking office”, after the “disruption and disorganisation of the Trump years”.
Putin’s foreign forays might also be a ploy to distract from what The Washington Post’s Ignatius describes as “his most substantial domestic criticism in several years”.
Allies of Navalny have vowed to stage “the largest protests in modern Russian history” on Wednesday, while the US has warned that the Kremlin will “pay a price” if the opposition leader dies behind bars, Reuters reports.
In a tweet on Saturday, Navalny’s daughter called for Putin to “allow a doctor to see my dad”, after the dissident’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh wrote on Facebook that Navalny is “dying”. Several doctors have warned that he could go into cardiac arrest at any time.
Moscow-based independent television channel Dozhd this morning tweeted that Navalny has been “transferred to the inpatient unit” of a “regional hospital for convicts”.
Navalny is entering his 20th day on hunger strike, with dozens of writers, historians, actors and celebrities signing a letter published on Friday in The Economist and Le Monde calling for Putin to allow Navalny to see his doctor.
With elections scheduled to take place in September, Putin’s United Russia party has seen its support fall to a historic low of 27%, according to a poll by the Levada-Center, a Moscow-based independent research organisation.