Brussels sanctions and Washington criticism: Vladimir Putin's open fronts

Joe Biden's arrival at the White House points to a tense period between Russia and the United States, while the European Union sanctions Moscow over the Navalny case
Russian President Vladimir Putin

PHOTO/AP  -   Russian President Vladimir Putin

In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been confronted with numerous criticisms that are changing his foreign policy. First, the imprisonment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and the subsequent crackdown on anti-government protesters has caused relations between Brussels and the Kremlin to cool and become strained. In February Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, visited Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Borrell expressed concern about Navaly and those arrested in the protests. “My visit coincides with the arrest and sentencing of Alexei Navalny and the arrest of a thousand protesters. I have conveyed to Minister Lavrov our deep concern. While we fully respect Russian sovereignty, human rights and political freedoms are fundamental to our common future. for both the European Union and Russia “, said the High Representative. In response, Lavrov reminded him of the situation of the Catalan pro-independence leaders, sentenced for organising a referendum. This has not been the only time that the Russian government has used Catalonia to try to attack the European Union and at the same time defend itself from criticism. Days after the meeting between Borrell and Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Ministry ironised the Spaniard's criticism of the Navalny case and the protests. "Josep Borrell's attempts to lecture Russia on Navalny would sound particularly 'appropriate' from the streets of Barcelona," tweeted the ministry, referring to the riots in Barcelona over the imprisonment of rapper Pablo Hasel.

El ministro de Asuntos Exteriores de Rusia, Sergei Lavrov, y el jefe de política exterior de la Unión Europea, Josep Borrell, asisten a una rueda de prensa tras sus conversaciones en Moscú, Rusia, el 5 de febrero de 2021
Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell attend a news conference after their talks in Moscow, Russia February 5, 2021.

On March 1, the European Union finally approved the implementation of the agreed sanctions against Russia. These sanctions consist of a ban on entry into the territory of the EU and the freezing of assets and property held in the area by four people directly linked to the arrest of Alexei Navalny. Following Brussels, Washington also decreed sanctions against Russia for the persecution of the opposition leader, the repression of his supporters and the violation of human rights. It also added the poisoning he suffered in August 2020, a detail that the European Union did not expressly mention. 

El líder de la oposición Alexei Navalny se encuentra en una jaula en el Tribunal de Distrito Babuskinsky en Moscú, Rusia, el sábado 20 de febrero de 202
AP/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO - Opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage at the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.

In addition to the sanctions imposed by the United States - the first of the Biden administration - the new president has called Putin a "murderer" in an interview on ABC News and warns that he will pay for his alleged interference in the US elections. This is not the first time Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have clashed. During Barack Obama's term in office, when Biden was vice president, the two countries had very tense relations over Russia's annexation of Crimea. Because of this confrontation, the Russian government has summoned its ambassador to Washington, Anatoli Antonov, to Moscow to "to analyse what needs to be done in the context of relations with the United States", declared foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. On the other hand, Putin did not seem to attach much importance to his US counterpart's statements.  “As he [Biden] said, we know each other personally. What would I reply to him? I would say: I wish you health. I wish you health. I say that without any irony or joke,” Putin said in a video conference. However, other members of the government have harshly criticised Biden's words. "Biden insulted the citizens of our country with his statement," said Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma (lower house of parliament). “Putin is our president, attacks on him are attacks on our country!".

En esta foto de archivo del domingo 31 de enero de 2021, manifestantes detenidos caminan escoltados por la Policía durante una protesta contra el encarcelamiento del líder de la oposición Alexei Navalny en San Petersburgo, Rusia
PHOTO/AP - In this Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021 file photo, detained protesters walk escorted by Police during a protest against the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia

Relations between Russia and the UK are also not at their best. Boris Johnson said that "Russia is the most acute direct threat to the UK", Boris Johnson said on Tuesday during a session on military and foreign policy. "We will work with NATO Allies to ensure a united Western response, combining military, intelligence, and diplomatic efforts,"he added. The British government has also decided to increase its arsenal of nuclear warheads, something that, together with Johnson's statements, has created misgivings in the Kremlin. "We are very sorry that the UK has chosen this path of increasing nuclear warheads. This decision harms international stability and strategic security," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced at a daily press briefing. "Russia is not a threat. The presence of nuclear warheads is what threatens peace throughout the world,” Peskov said.

El presidente de Estados Unidos, Joe Biden, habla durante una breve aparición en la Casa Blanca en Washington, Estados Unidos, el 25 de enero de 2021
REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE - U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a brief appearance at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2021.

Due to problems with the West, Russia seems to be looking East in its new international policy plans. Together with Turkey, it is building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Mardin in the south of the country. "Akkuyu is one of the symbols of Turkish-Russian cooperation," Erdogan said. Moscow, for its part, has reiterated this cooperation: "Russia is ready to widen economic, commercial and investment cooperation," said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Russia, through Sergei Lavrov, also acted as mediator in a meeting held this morning between the Afghan government and the Taliban to try to achieve peace in the country. The talks were prompted by Moscow because of the stalled talks in Doha, Qatar. Russia will thus try to become an important player in Afghanistan's complicated peace process. Despite the rapprochement between the government and the Taliban, violence has increased recently. In fact, today, on the day of the meeting, four people were killed and 14 wounded in an attack in Kabul, for the moment no group has claimed responsibility.