Arrest of Kremlin critic sparks Western condemnation, calls for sanctions
© Nord Stream 2 / Axel Schmidt
By Mark Swift
In the wake of Russian politician Alexei Navalny’s arrest on January 17th, a number of ministers from European Union (EU) states have pressed for fresh sanctions. They insist that the Russian government must be compelled to abide by internationally accepted norms.
The situation renews pressure on German chancellor Angela Merkel to abandon Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline project linking Germany and Russia.
The European Union condemned Navalny’s detention, releasing an official declaration the day following his arrest. It called for the Kremlin critic’s immediate release and stressed that the “[p]oliticisation of the judiciary is unacceptable.”
“The detention confirms a continuous negative pattern of shrinking space for the opposition, civil society and independent voices in the Russian Federation,” the declaration reads.
Navalny maintains all charges against him are politically motivated. In September, the political figure and outspoken critic of the Russian government almost died as a consequence of a botched assassination attempt that saw him hospitalised in Berlin. Testing at a German military laboratory concluded “unequivocally” the use of the Russian military-grade chemical nerve agent “Novichok.”
The ministers for foreign affairs of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, had called for a forceful repudiation of the most recent incident, writing a letter to the high representative of the EU, Mr Josep Borell Fontelles, the same day as Navalny’s arrest. In the letter, they call for a “swift reaction.”
“Furthermore, we do consider it is necessary to take additional firm diplomatic measures […] including the possible introduction of further restrictive measures,” they write, adding that Fontelles should consider cancelling a February diplomatic visit to Russia if nothing changes.
Russian officials stated that such sentiments would not influence how the state handles Navalny’s case.
“We hear these statements, but we cannot and don’t plan to take these into account,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“This is about a Russian citizen not complying with Russian law. This is an absolutely domestic matter and we will not allow anyone to interfere in it,” he added.
The EU responded to last year’s poisoning incident with restrictive measures on six individuals and one entity. Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, was quoted around the time as saying that he hoped Russia did not force Germany to change its position on Nord Stream, indicating that Navalny’s treatment could influence such as decision.
A project at risk
In the context of Navalny’s detention, the United States placed sanctions on the Russian pipe-laying vessel Fortuna which is currently involved in finishing the nearly complete pipeline. This came after more than a year of delays to the project, largely as a result of US threats over sanctions. Construction restarted only late last year.
US officials oppose the pipeline, arguing that reliance on Russia for natural gas puts EU energy security at risk.
In a statement, the Russian energy giant and steward of Nord Stream, Gazprom, said that the project could be in jeopardy due to changes in political conditions.
“In exceptional circumstances, including owing to political pressure, such changes may result in a project being suspended or discontinued,” the company stated.
The German and Russian joint venture, under the Nord Stream AG company banner, represents almost €10 billion in investment. Nord Stream 2 aims to be a second direct connection between the world’s largest gas reserves in Russia, some 47 trillion cubic metres, and the EU. If it were to come to a halt, this would be a significant cash sinkhole for anyone invested in the project.