Briefing no.4 02/2021 – The Russian winter of 2021: new internal and external challenges

Despite the extreme conditions of the Russian winter and the still worrying sanitary conditions, in the last few weeks tens of thousands of Russian citizens have poured into the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, but also in the freezing Siberian cities, to protest against the government, which has responded with force and repression, a well-tested method in those latitudes. The result: more than 5,000 people in jail.

The demonstrations are linked to the latest developments in the “Navalny case”, the opponent who in recent months has been engaged in a heated duel with the Kremlin and who is the most popular leader of the jagged opposition to the “United Russia” party. After the attempted poisoning at home – by the Russian secret service, according to many reconstructions – the blogger returned to Moscow, aware that he would be arrested. The first wave of demonstrations after his arrest was followed by another after his conviction on 2 February, both of which were severely repressed.

Will these clamorous protests dent the thick shell of power that has protected Putin for years?

Thanks to the widespread denunciation of the corruption of the ruling elite, Navalny has succeeded in achieving a qualitative leap in the capacity of popular mobilisation against the power of Putin, who has led the country for 20 years. If it is true that the “Tsar” remains a popular figure – his approval rating is still around 70% – and that the power structures are certainly not about to collapse, it is equally true that the worsening economic situation (the pandemic has led to a 4% contraction in 2020, rising unemployment, falling production) has drastically reduced the population’s standard of living, generating palpable discontent. The Russian economy is overwhelmingly dependent on oil and gas sales: any reduction in global trade (pandemic/trade wars) would complicate economic recovery, undermining the stability of Putin’s power.

The immediate challenge comes from the parliamentary elections in September

“United Russia” holds a strong majority in the Duma and the other two main parties are led by fanatical old communists and nationalists: Zyuganov (Communist Party) and Zhirinovsky (Liberal Democratic Party). A political force that manages to unite around Navalny could upset the balance of power: it is with this in mind that the blogger has returned to Moscow and it is precisely to prevent the triggering of this dynamic that the Kremlin has chosen the hard line, arresting him and condemning him to remain in prison for at least two and a half years, in order to limit his political activity. Civil society movements have also been affected, with hundreds of activists arrested and accused of being spies and saboteurs under the “law on foreign agents”.

What are the repercussions of the nervous domestic scene on the global scene, first and foremost in relations with the West? In the first ritual phone call between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, the topics discussed were the hottest: the protest against the attempted poisoning and arrest of Navalny, violence against demonstrators, Moscow’s “cyber-attacks”, Ukraine and the many international issues on which the positions of the two giants are opposed. Biden will not be able to avoid the task of redesigning relations with Moscow, after the denunciations of Russian interference in the American elections and the suspicions of non-transparent relations between Trump’s White House and Putin’s Kremlin: we can guess that he will do so by trying to re-establish the concert with the transatlantic allies and moving between necessary realism (pursuing cooperation in areas of convergence) and a return to idealism for the defence and diffusion of liberal and democratic values. The extension of ‘New Start’ on nuclear power is a positive pragmatic signal to avoid reopening a strategic arms race after the Trump administration’s denunciation of other arms control agreements.

In Brussels, every time there is talk of the EU’s common foreign and security policy and its ability to act as a global geopolitical actor, everything becomes more complicated: moreover, for the Europeans, every time Russia is discussed, fractures and differences in positions dictated by history, geography, economic interests and the very identity of the 27 member countries re-emerge. It is difficult to reconcile the sensitivities of the Baltic States and Poland with those of, for example, Greece, Italy and even Germany and France: at the end of heated discussions, the final compromise is often a lowest common denominator that does not go beyond the rhetoric of common declarations and the limited effectiveness of sterilised measures.

In this context, made even more tense by the Navalny case, Josep Borrell, the EU’s head of diplomacy, visited Moscow.

One of the stated objectives of the visit was to demand Navalny’s release: as a secondary measure, the possibility of a prison visit. Borrell did not achieve either of these objectives, and provided an easy target for Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov during the customary press conference. Another blow dealt by the Kremlin was the expulsion of three diplomats from EU member states (a German, a Swede and a Pole) for taking part in the demonstrations in recent weeks. It would be too easy to lay the blame on Borrell, even if he could have been proactive in response to Lavrov’s provocations, instead of taking it in silence. The ability to define, in a clear and effective manner, the common European attitude towards Russia is the first, real litmus test to make the Union a true and credible geopolitical actor in the globalised world, also because Moscow continues to do with Europe what it does best: divide it and make it incapable of having a strong voice.

What does this mean for Italy’s national interest?

The Russian Federation remains an important interlocutor for Italy: the two countries boast a solid diplomatic and commercial tradition, which was greatly strengthened in the post-Soviet period.

In economic and commercial terms, Italy is Russia’s third largest trading partner in the European Union, after Germany and the Netherlands, and the second largest importer of Russian energy into the EU, after Germany. The definition of a coherent policy towards Moscow is, therefore, a priority for the EU, as well as for Rome, even more so in this phase of bitter confrontation. The Italian objective should be the elaboration of a position that integrates, in a clear and univocal way, contrasting interests in relations with Moscow: on the one hand, economic relations and a privileged commercial partnership; on the other, the pro-European orientation of our Country and the priority to be reserved for the defence of human and civil rights and the promotion of democracy and its values in our foreign policy action. It is clear that the new sanctions that could result from the escalation of relations in recent months would damage exports and trade relations, but we must go beyond individual aspects and take action in Brussels so that responses are decided in line with European values, responding to the prevailing expectations of public opinion and able to produce concrete effects, making declarations of principle credible. Italy has already demonstrated its willingness to review the 2014 system of sanctions against Russia, especially in light of their actual ineffectiveness in achieving the objective: to bring Moscow closer together. The recovery of a constant dialogue with the Kremlin is a conditio sine qua non to ensure European security, also because of the increased Russian economic, political and military presence in the Mediterranean, the area of greatest strategic interest for Italy.

It is therefore desirable for Rome, and Brussels, to reflect carefully on this matter so as not to be caught unprepared should events in Russia escalate the crisis with the West.

Michael L. Giffoni
International Relations Analyst, former Italian Ambassador to Kosovo



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