Belarus, Navalny cast shadows on Russia’s ties with EU

Belarusian opposition protestors marching toward the presidential palace, Minsk, September 6, 2020

The Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu disclosed on September 6 on the state television that there has been a thirty percent increase in aerial surveillance on the country’s borders by NATO jets in August as compared to last year. Unlike in the past when surveillance used to be undertaken by spy planes, of late, regular training flights are being undertaken, during which mock missile strikes are also conducted. 

Shoigu also said that the NATO plans to redeploy another US military contingent to Poland in the near future under the pretext of a pressing need to “strategically constrain” Russia. He added that American and British planes have been active in the Black Sea region too, on Russia’s southern borders. 

This is playing out while two other inflection points have appeared in the past 4-week period — the unrest in Belarus following the August 9 presidential election and, second, the strange case of poisoning of Russian political activist Alexei Navalny. 

Seemingly, these happenings are unrelated to each other but they herald a recrudescence of western pressure on Russia. In Belarus, the unrest over President Alexander Lukashenka’s election shows no signs of abating, with western state media organs fuelling the protests and virtually acting as agents provocateurs. 

Russia is playing cool. Although it has legitimate interests in the situation, Moscow is also open to the idea of the democratic transformation of Belarus but in an orderly political process with constitutional underpinnings. Moscow’s trump card is that Belarus is heavily dependent on Russian economic subsidies, especially in energy supplies.

At a time when the western economies are in doldrums in varying degrees, neither the EU nor the US is keen to replace Russia as Belarus’ benefactor. Therefore, a tacit understanding between Russia and the West over “red lines” would have helped. The Russian side apparently hoped to discuss the “red lines” with the visiting US deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun on August 24 in Moscow for consultations, but the latter was not prepared for it. That could only be a delaying tactic. 

Later, Biegun publicly voiced strong support for the protests in Minsk and warned Russia against direct intervention in Belarus. Washington will be pleased if a regime change takes place in Belarus. Most certainly, a high degree of coordination exists between the US and the three regional states who are actively interfering in Belarus — Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. 

Moscow’s approach under these circumstances will be to promote Belarus’ deeper integration with Russia within the framework of the Union State pact of 1998. Thus, Moscow and Minsk have reportedly agreed on the resumption of Russian energy supplies to Belarus, which has been a major sticking point in the relations. Security issues are expected to be on the top of the agenda during the upcoming talks between Lukashenka and Putin in Moscow. The defence ministers are preparing a road map, which may include Russian military facilities in Belarus.

No doubt, the protests have weakened Lukashenko politically and he is no longer in a position to play off Russia against the West. He may have little choice apropos of the Kremlin’s conditions. But it is also self-defeating for Russia to impose conditions that may lack public acceptability within Belarus. Fundamentally, Lukashenka has become a “burnt-out case” and Russia has permanent interests in Belarus.  

As for Navalny’s poisoning, a set pattern is repeating — western allegations of Russian complicity mushrooming overnight, based on inferences and assumptions without accompanying evidence. What compounds the problem is that chemical nerve agents from the Novichok group are available with many militaries, including NATO member countries. 

A Russian request for access to Navalny is pending with Germany. So is a Russian proposal to Germany for a joint medical team to examine the case. However, Germany has already begun discussions “with our EU and NATO partners and will soon discuss with the European partners which reaction is to follow and its possible impacts.” Threat of sanctions is in the air. 

Having said that, the European Union and NATO may not take punitive measures against Russia before any proper investigation is conducted. The EU itself is a divided house, with a strong body of opinion represented by Germany, France and Italy underscoring the imperatives of maintaining a good working relationship with Russia to address pressing problems facing Europe, while a clutch of “New Europeans” — Poland and Lithuania, principally  — are itching to put Russia on the mat — egged on by the UK, which has its own axe to grind in isolating Russia.

The BBC has become the flag carrier of protestors in Minsk.  Evidently, the UK is piling pressure on the Kremlin with an alacrity that was missing over similar incidents such as the murder of the Maltese journalist and activist Daphne Caruana Galizia (2017), the Slovakian investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé (2018) or the ghastly murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi (2018) in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

There is a body of opinion in the West that Germany should punish Russia by mothballing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. But Chancellor Angela Merkel disfavours such a linkage and would insist on Russia to thoroughly investigate the Navalny case. Berlin has promised to respond shortly to the pending request from the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office. 

Again, the constitution of an international group of medics (Russian and western) to investigate the case, as suggested by Moscow, will calm down tensions. Moscow seems confident that it has nothing to hide. The point is, Navalny kept contact with assorted people — right-wing extremists, oligarchs competing with the Kremlin, and even Western intelligence agencies. He also made many enemies, thanks to his anti-corruption crusade. Conceivably, he might even have fallen out with one of his mentors. 

But beyond lies the “known unknown”. Moscow will have to name names and thereupon proceed to investigate this attempt on Navalny’s life. In Germany itself, though, opinion is divided as to whether this is an issue that concerns it at all — an incident that took place in another country involving a foreigner who happened to be brought to Germany for medical treatment. And the key question remains: How seriously Germany and the EU should respond to it?   

Suffice to say, although it is too much to expect any cooperation between Russia and the western powers over the protests in Belarus or the controversy over Navalny’s poisoning, these two situations need not necessarily become flash points in their relations, leave alone cause permanent damage. 

However, a caveat must be added: the US is playing the long game in Belarus with an eye on the 2024 election in Russia when Putin’s term ends. Quite obviously, the outcome of the US presidential election in November will have considerable bearing on the future trajectory of the American approach. 

Meanwhile, the increased US military presence in Eastern Europe emboldens Poland and Lithuania to keep the pot boiling in Belarus. Also, trust the Trump administration to keep up the pressure on Germany to abandon the Nord Stream 2 project. Washington estimates that German-Russian relations won’t be the same once Merkel retires next year.