The poisoning of Alexey Navalny should not go unpunished.

Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, is slowly recovering from his poisoning back in August.   

While convalescing at a hospital in Berlin, he told the German magazine Der Spiegel: "I assert that Putin is behind this act, I don't see any other explanation." Looking at the Kremlin’s track record at targeting political dissidents, he is probably right. 

Navalny is popular in Russia. He has a YouTube channel with 4.12 million subscribers and millions of more followers on social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram. He uses these platforms to criticize and expose the corruption of Russian oligarchs. Most of the time his sights are set on Vladimir Putin himself. 

This popularity has come at great personal cost. Since 2011, he has been imprisoned more than 10 times. The last time he had a chance to challenge Putin at the polls in 2018 he was banned from doing so. 

But the most severe attack against him came in August. Just weeks before nationwide local elections on August 20, Navalny boarded a plane in Omsk in eastern Siberia. While en route to Moscow, he became ill and his plane was forced to undergo an emergency landing. He was rushed to a local hospital.  

After pleading from his wife, Russian authorities allowed Navalny to be transferred to a German hospital. There, he was placed in a medically induced coma for days. While he is now back on his feet, he has not fully recovered. 

Medical tests conducted in Germany showed that he was poisoned with Novichok, a chemical nerve agent. If this rings a bell, that's because it was the same nerve agent used in March 2018 to poison Russia dissident Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. While both Sergi and Yulia survived the attack, one person who came across the nerve agent died.  

Novichok is an extremely potent substance that causes death by asphyxiation. The use of Novichok is a violation of the multilateral Chemical Weapons Convention, which is purposed with “prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons.” 

Even though Russia is a member of this convention, this did not stop Moscow in the Skrypal or Navalny cases. When considering that Russia is in violation of other multilateral arms control agreements, like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, for example, this flaunting of the rules is no surprise. 

What can be done? First and foremost, there must be a united European response. However, this seems very unlikely considering the cosy relationship between Cyprus and Russia. And since the EU’s foreign policy-making takes a lowest common denominator approach—any member state can block or water down EU sanctions. This is exactly what happened with the EU regarding sanctions against those officials in Belarus who have brutally cracked down on peaceful protests after the recent rigged elections. Cyprus kept delaying EU sanctions. Eventually, only watered-down sanctions were passed.

One thing that Europe can do that will send a strong message to Moscow, and also keep it safer is end the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. 

This proposed Russian gas pipeline to Germany will increase Europe’s dependence on Moscow for energy. Notwithstanding the tough line and threat of sanctions from the Trump administration, and vocal opposition from many corners across Europe, Germany remains committed to seeing Nord Stream 2 becomes operational. 

This project is neither economically necessary, nor is it geopolitically prudent. Rather, it is a political project led by German financial interests and Russian geopolitical machinations to greatly increase European dependence on Russian gas, magnify Russia’s ability to use its European energy dominance as a political trump card, and specifically undermine Eastern and Central Europe.

The blatant poisoning of Navalny should be the end of this project. Berlin should find the moral and geopolitical fortitude to tell Moscow that a line has been crossed and that Nord Stream 2 is no longer possible.  

Of course, the Kremlin continues to deny the accusations that the Russian state played a part in Navalny’s poisoning. Defenders of the Kremlin argue that there is no real evidence proving that Russia was behind either incident involving novichok.

Regardless, one thing is true: Russia has a chemical weapons problem. Either the Kremlin is sanctioning the use of a banned military-grade nerve agent to target political dissidents, or this nerve agent is so widely available in Russia that criminal organisations can use it to target, very conveniently it must be said, Putin’s political opponents.

If the Kremlin thinks that the attack on Navalny will intimidate or silence him, it will be sorely disappointed. Although Navalny is recovering in Germany, his bank accounts in Russia have been frozen, and his flat seized – he is determined to get back to Russia. 

Russia has been facing setback after setback in places like Libya and Syria. Moscow is also occupied with events in Belarus, Ukraine and now the fighting in the South Caucasus. These situations are made worst by a sagging economy, low oil prices, and the impact of the global pandemic. 

As Putin gets more desperate, expect even more outrageous attacks like the world saw against Navalny.

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