During two decades as Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin has rarely concealed his contempt for Western-style democracy and the rule of law. The poisoning of Russian political activist Alexei Navalny, amid a widening Russia-supported crackdown on opposition leaders in Belarus, indicates the lengths to which Putin and his cronies will go to silence their enemies and maintain power.
Russia’s forthright challenge to international norms demands a forceful Western response. It won’t come from the Trump administration, whose mild rebukes are consistently undercut by the president’s evident regard for Putin. In America’s absence, European leaders should develop a coordinated strategy to counter Russia’s threat to the continent’s stability and impose steeper costs for its misconduct.
The crisis in Belarus is the most immediate test. Five weeks since a fraudulent election sparked mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, the government has begun arresting and deporting leading opposition figures and opening criminal prosecutions against them. Putin has reportedly dispatched Russian operatives to assume control of Belarusian state media outlets and hinted at more forceful intervention if anti-government protests grow violent. Putin and Lukashenko, who met face-to-face on Monday, also seem to be exploring moves toward political integration — a form of “soft annexation” long sought by Putin, allowing him to extend Russian influence deeper into the heart of Europe.
The West has limited influence over events in Belarus, but European leaders should do what they can to bolster its democracy. The EU should impose travel and asset bans on members of Lukashenko’s regime involved in abducting and imprisoning opposition leaders. It should suspend economic and political cooperation until all political prisoners are released and a new election is held under international supervision. Collectively and individually, Europe’s governments should support pro-democracy groups with money, professional and educational exchanges, and technical help for social-media channels that Belarusians rely on to counter Russian-backed disinformation.
Confronting Putin also requires Europe to wean itself off Russia’s most potent geopolitical weapon: natural gas. The obvious target is Nord Stream 2, the pipeline built under the Baltic Sea to carry gas directly from Russia to Germany. The attack on Navalny, who remains hospitalized in Berlin after being poisoned with the nerve agent novichok, has raised pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel to halt the pipeline project. Having previously insisted on completing construction, Merkel’s position has shifted. She now says it would be “wrong to rule anything out” until Putin provides an explanation for Navalny’s poisoning.
Germany ought to scrap Nord Stream 2 immediately. Its dependence on gas imports from Russia is already too high — and, with prices falling due to soft global demand, this is a good time to diversify. Germany could import more gas from the U.S. and Gulf states, and from reserves in the eastern Mediterranean if tensions between Greece and Turkey can be eased. Ending German dependence on Russian energy would reduce Putin’s leverage over Europe and weaken the Russian economy, undermining Putin’s support at home.
Hard power counts as well. Europe’s governments must work together to upgrade their military capacity, with modern weapons, joint training and stronger cyber defenses. With luck, a new U.S. administration can help, by restoring America’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance. But whoever wins the White House in November, containing Putin’s Russia is a job Europe needs to face more squarely.
The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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