Saturday

17th Apr 2021

Analysis

How should the EU handle Russia now?

  • 'Authorities are having to move from propaganda to repression,' Mikhail Khodorkovksy said (Photo: Kelly)

The Russian regime got a bloody nose in local elections last weekend. At the same time, Russia exchanged prisoners with Ukraine and agreed to hold peace talks.

But what does it all mean?

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • French president Emmanuel Macron's diplomatic push doomed to 'fail', one expert said (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Is Russian president Vladimir Putin losing his grip on power and having second thoughts about waging war in Europe?

Should the West help the opposition to topple him? Or should it try to make new deals with the Kremlin, as French president Emmanuel Macron is keen to do?

"United Russia's campaign across the country was very, very successful," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after local elections last Sunday (8 September).

Putin's political party held on to its majority in most big cities and all 16 of his governor candidates won their posts, he added.

But its majority in the Moscow city council plunged from 38 to 25 out of 40.

It did even worse in other parts of Russia, such as Khabarovsk and Irkutsk, and it lost half its support in Russia-occupied Crimea in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the party's "success" relied on banning real opposition candidates from running.

It also fielded what the opposition calls "pocket candidates" - United Russia politicians who hid their true affiliation.

And the election came after the biggest anti-regime demonstrations in Moscow in a decade, with up to 50,000 people on the streets.

"The vote in the country was a protest and the authorities had to resort to fraud in order not to lose their majority," Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch who lives in London and who works with Russian opposition movements, told EUobserver.

United Russia's popularity has "tumbled" because Putin forced it to back a hike in the pension age to offset economic problems, Nikolai Petrov, a researcher at the Chatham House think-tank in London, added.

"There's a change happening [in Russia] and leaders are not immortal," Judy Dempsey, an expert at Carnegie Europe, a transatlantic think-tank, also said.

Putin's wars in Ukraine and Syria were expensive, while ordinary Russian people were being "dumped on", and anger over simple things, such as uncollected garbage, was boiling over, she added.

"The good news is that it [anti-regime feeling] is not just Moscow-centric. It's happening all over the country ... civil society is taking root," Dempsey said.

Good news?

Putin, also last weekend, exchanged 35 prisoners with Ukraine.

The move raised hopes of a wider breakthrough on the five-year old conflict

"To return Ukrainian sailors and political prisoners back home from illegal Russian imprisonment was very long-awaited for the whole country," Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Mykola Tochytskyi, told EUobserver.

Putin's move even saw France talk of ending EU sanctions on Russia if there was a peace deal at an upcoming summit.

"We are seeing a new state of mind ... which we are pleased about," Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said after going to Moscow last Monday.

The situation on the domestic front might get worse before it gets better, however.

The usefulness of United Russia as a "political technology" was running out and "the authorities are having to move from propaganda to repression," Khodorkovsky noted.

As if to illustrate his point, a few days after Peskov's statement, police goons raided the homes and offices of supporters of Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition figure, in more than 40 cities.

The security forces will "inevitably make mistakes" and Putin will take the blame for these, Khodorkovsky added.

But the opposition remained "split" and there was no "serious pressure" on the regime at this stage, he also said.

Khodorkovsky urged "respected people" in the West to give moral support by speaking out against violence.

Dempsey, from Carnegie Europe, said the EU could also help reformers to use the internet more effectively.

But "any change will have to come from inside" Russia, she noted.

"There can be some optimism around the future of Russian politics ... but it's really too early now to speak about serious partners for the West among a very diversified and fluid Russian opposition," Chatham House's Petrov said.

Mental state

At the same time, the repressive turn poses questions on France's diagnosis of Putin's "state of mind".

The French overtures also make mockery of Khodorkovsky's appeal to "respected people" in the West.

For his part, Tochytskyi, the Ukrainian ambassador, warned against reading too much into the prisoner swap deal.

Russia still held "dozens" of Ukrainian political prisoners and fired on Ukrainian soldiers "every day" on the contact line, he noted.

And the diplomat urged the EU to "remain resolute and consistent in its adherence to sanctions ... until the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is fully restored".

With the UK distracted by Brexit and with the German chancellor on her way out of office, French leader Macron has become Europe's spokesman on the world stage.

"Macron is now the number one foreign policy thinker and mover in Europe ... there's no bravura, it's very serious", Dempsey said.

But for some experts, such as James Nixey from Chatham House, the 41-year old French leader still had "a lot to learn".

Macron would "get nothing" from his Russia summit because Putin "wants something so fundamentally - legally, morally - different [to what the EU stands for] that it cannot be granted", Nixey said.

"Most Western leaders come into power believing their predecessors were incompetent and only someone truly capable such as themselves can succeed in this task," Nixey added.

"Macron will fail because - as he will come to realise - Russia has no interest in being 'brought round'. It's just not that kind of regime," Nixey said.

France calls for EU-Russia reset

The time is right for the EU and Russia to mend ties, but sanctions should stay in place for now, France has said.

France calls Russia peace summit on Ukraine

France has called an EU summit with Russia on the Ukraine conflict following a prisoner exchange - but the Dutch are unhappy that Ukraine freed a witness of the MH17 atrocity.

Column

These are the crunch issues for the 2019-2024 EU commission

These developments will largely determine who will be running the world in the coming decades and perhaps generations. If the Europeans can't find an answer over the five years, they will be toast. And we haven't even mentioned climate change.

News in Brief

  1. EU postpones decision on labelling gas 'sustainable'
  2. MEPs call for mass surveillance ban in EU public spaces
  3. Greek and Turkish ministers trade jibes in Ankara
  4. Biden repeats opposition to Russia-Germany pipeline
  5. Navalny in danger, letter warns EU foreign ministers
  6. Lithuania keen to use Denmark's AstraZeneca vaccines
  7. Gas plants largest source of power-sector emissions
  8. Study: Higher risk of blood clots from Covid than vaccines

Opinion

Why Russia politics threaten European security

Russia could expand hostile operations, such as poisonings, including beyond its borders, if it feels an "existential" threat and there is no European pushback.

Analysis

Ten years on from Tahrir: EU's massive missed opportunity

Investing in the Arab world, in a smart way, is also investing in the European Union's future itself. Let's hope that the disasters of the last decade help to shape the neighbourhood policy of the next 10 years.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDigitalisation can help us pick up the green pace
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region can and should play a leading role in Europe’s digital development
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council to host EU webinars on energy, digitalisation and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market

Latest News

  1. US rejects Slovenia-linked plan to break up Bosnia
  2. Ukraine urges Borrell to visit Russia front line
  3. Could US sanctions hit Russia vaccine sales to EU?
  4. Polish court pushes out critical ombudsman
  5. Political crises in Romania and Bulgaria amid third wave
  6. Von der Leyen's summer plans undisclosed, after Ukraine snub
  7. Over a million EU citizens back farm-animal cage ban
  8. Three options for West on Putin's Ukraine build-up

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us