OPINION: The arrest of Russia's top opposition leader Alexei Navalny on his return to Moscow has gifted European powers another opportunity to halt the Gazprom-led Nord Stream 2 gas export pipeline and take other punitive measures to try to rein in the Russian government.
Navalny was detained on arrival at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on 17 January after spending more than five months in Germany recovering from being poisoned in August during a trip to East Siberia.
An independent investigation confirmed that a team of Russian Federal Security operatives had followed Navalny on domestic trips since 2017, ready to poison him with a Novichok nerve agent once they received the orders.
The Russian government has denied the allegations and refused to open its own inquiry, with President Vladimir Putin blaming foreign intelligence services for setting up an attack on the country’s leadership.
Navalny’s arrest is a slap in the face for European Union members, which have been considering tough sanctions against the Russian state, its officials and state corporations over the use of Novichok.
To date, however, they have only agreed to impose restrictions on certain Russian individuals.
The lack of a tough response from Europe last year convinced Putin there would be no serious obstacles to his plans, including cracking down on the opposition at home and, as has been widely alleged by his detractors, destabilising European and US democracies.
Since 2014, the Kremlin has annexed the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine and allegedly provided a missile unit to down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
It has also been accused of sending agents to the UK to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, and has been found to have interfered in Western elections.
Despite the weight of evidence, the Kremlin has seen its policy of persistent public denials largely pay off, with Russian oil and gas companies continuing to strike deals in foreign markets.
While politics and economics may have clear dividing lines in Europe, they are closely linked in Russia, where Putin is widely reported to have a significant degree of control over gas monopoly Gazprom and other major corporations headed by his long-time friends and acquaintances.
The condemnation from Europe and the US following Navalny’s detention will not vex the Kremlin.
Moscow expects that calls from Europe and the US for Navalny's release — no matter how strongly worded — will ultimately have no consequences for Gazprom or other Putin-related corporations or European assets linked to Russian governmental officials.
Taking aim at Russian corporations could prove costly for European businesses, as the likes of Germany’s Siemens and Wintershall Dea have significant exposure to the Russian market.
However, the importance of Russian oil and gas in fuelling European countries looks set to diminish significantly as nations increasingly switch to renewable energy sources.
Nord Stream 2 already runs the risk of being an obsolete project as it is based on the assumption that European demand for hydrocarbons will grow in the long term.
Navalny's arrest — and potential impending prison sentence — could stir European powers to shut down the controversial gas pipeline project, while also limiting Russian oil and gas imports.
Such a response would have the dual effect of piling pressure on Putin as well as speeding up Europe's transition to cleaner forms of energy.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)