How has Russia fared under sanctions?

Josep Borrell is brief. "The Russian courts continue to ignore the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the case of Alexej Navalny," wrote the EU foreign policy representative on Twitter on Sunday. The Kremlin critic failed in his appeal before a Moscow court: he has now been imprisoned for two and a half years. The ECtHR had described the 2014 judgment as "arbitrary", but Russia ignored this, even though, as a member of the Council of Europe, it would have to follow the ECtHR. Borrell, who was humiliated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in early February, will discuss the EU's measures with the foreign ministers of the 27 member states on Monday.

In Brussels, it is certain that the ministers will give the green light to apply the EU sanctions regime for human rights for the first time. The German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is also calling for further sanctions against Russia. "I am in favor of giving the order here to prepare such sanctions and listing of individuals," said Maas on Monday in Brussels before the start of the EU Foreign Ministers' Council. The EU will also talk about ways of maintaining a "constructive dialogue" with Russia. "We need Russia to resolve many international conflicts," said Maas.

In the next few days, experts will draw up a list of people from Russia whose accounts in the EU are blocked and who are no longer allowed to enter the EU. This list has to be "politically smart and legally watertight," says Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, addressing his colleagues from Poland and the Baltic States who want to target oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin.

Diplomats from other EU countries also emphasize that only people can be punished if it can be proven from publicly available sources that they had something to do with the arrest of Nawalny. This would be the case with members of the Russian judicial system, for example. Moscow has been warning of sanctions for a long time. The EU should be careful with further "reckless steps", says the spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, Maria Sakharova, and threatens with "a prompt and appropriate response".

The frosty relations between Moscow and Brussels hit a new low in 2021. Russia and the EU "are drifting further and further apart, politically, ideologically and economically," writes Dmitrij Trenin from the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Borrell's visit revealed how deep the trench is. The Spaniard had traveled to Moscow with the firm intention of not only condemning Navalny's imprisonment and the violence against protesting supporters, but also of promoting possible cooperation. Moscow also knows that the heads of state and government will be deliberating on Russia at the EU summit in March. Nonetheless, Lavrov received the EU chief diplomat with the firm intention of exposing him and criticizing the EU as an "unreliable partner".

From a European point of view, this tactic seems incomprehensible and the scandal unnecessary. The Kremlin is facing new sanctions, and the already controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is being discussed even more controversially. Borrell, who has so far been pro-Russia, has to show toughness to regain trust. Moscow can only lose from further escalations. Or?

The expulsion of three diplomats during Borrell's visit was a duping of the Spaniard

The affront to Borrell had a very specific purpose for the Kremlin: it was supposed to show Western politicians what would happen if they kept making Navalny a topic of bilateral relations. His poisoning, arrest and conviction make it practically impossible for European heads of government not to demand his release at every opportunity. Lavrov showed them how high the price can be. Because the expulsion of three diplomats during Borrell's visit was not just a duping of the Spaniard: Diplomats from almost all 27 EU countries had watched the pro Navalny demonstrations with their own eyes, but Sweden, Poland and Germany were punished for countries that were loud Had made criticism.

In general, the Russian power apparatus does not allow itself to be dictated to in dealing with opposition members and critics of the Kremlin. Conflicts are practically inevitable before the Duma elections in the autumn. "The Kremlin can withstand further blows from sanctions, but it will not tolerate any interference in Russia's internal affairs. The value gap between the EU and Russia is rapidly widening," writes Carnegie expert Trenin.

Foreign sanctions are unpleasant, but not a serious threat; in fact, some Russian industries have even become more self-sufficient. Lavrov stressed last week that Russia would be prepared to break with the EU if there were further penalties: "We don't want to be isolated from the world, but we have to be ready."

Russia no longer feels bound by common European values. The ECHR demanded that Navalny be released because his life was in danger, the Ministry of Justice called "unfounded and shameless interference" in the judicial system of a sovereign state. In 2020, Putin's constitutional amendment put Russian law above international law.

So far, Navalny has shown little interest in Russia's relations with the West, but his rescue in Germany inevitably made him a foreign policy issue. The Russian Foreign Ministry portrays him as a tool used by Western intelligence services and suggests that European or American forces are behind the poisoning to harm the Kremlin. Anyone who calls for Navalny's release is not friendly to Russia according to this narrative. In this respect, it is likely to anger the Kremlin who numerous EU foreign ministers wanted to meet in Brussels on Sunday: with Leonid Volkov, Navalny's office manager.