Kremlin-critic and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was on Wednesday sentenced to 3.5-years in prison for violating the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany from being poisoned.
It drew widespread criticism from EU leaders, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying on Twitter that she condemned “the sentencing of Alexei Navalny in the strongest possible terms”.
“I call on Russia to comply with its international commitments and release him immediately and unconditionally,” she added.
The move by the court in Moscow came as Brussels’ top diplomat, Josep Borrell, was set to visit the Russian capital for talks with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, setting the scene for what would already be tense talks.
Borrell told a news conference on Friday that the meeting with Lavrov had been “frank and open” and “intense”.
The EU’s chief diplomat repeated the EU’s “deep concern” over the jailing of the Kremlin critic and called again for his release, as well as for an impartial investigation.
Once this was over, Russia announced that it had expelled diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden amid claims they took part in pro-Alexei Navalny protests.
Closer to home, the European Commission kept struggling with the fallout of the slow vaccine rollout.
The vaccinations are behind schedule because the vaccine makers can’t produce them fast enough.
And there is now a lot of finger-pointing going on in Europe over the handling of the crisis by the different players.
But von der Leyen tried to cut through the noise by reminding everyone what is at stake.
“Our rival is the virus, and the pharmaceutical industry is part of the solution to this problem,” she said.
Well, if the western vaccine makers can’t step up to the plate, why not go east?
That is the opinion of Hungary.
Budapest was the first EU government to use vaccines from Russia and China, as Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said: “We were the first, but it is unlikely that we will be the only ones in the European Union in this effort. After all, we hear even western European statements urging the inspection of the effectiveness of the Russian and Chinese vaccines.”
Some European analysts suspect that Russia and China may use their vaccine leverage to gain geopolitical influence over other countries, as Kristine Berzina from the German Marshall Fund told Euronews.
“At the same time, you’re having disinformation campaigns from the Chinese and from the Russian sides saying ‘oh, Pfizer’, drawing attention to the potential side effects of the Pfizer vaccine or others. So you have the struggle here for the question of the integrity of the vaccine, the efficacy of the vaccine,” Berzina said.
But now even Germany and France concede that the origin of a vaccine is not important, as long it has been approved by EU regulatory authorities.