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Hoping to reverse deteriorating relations with Moscow and defying calls to cancel the visit, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, visited Moscow on 4–6 February 2021. The visit was a fiasco. The Kremlin demonstrated that it has no interest in engaging in a constructive dialogue. At the same time, Moscow saw an opportunity to demonstrate its superiority and humiliate the EU. The way Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov treated Borrell indicates how Russia is determined to deal with the EU. The lessons drawn from the Moscow visit are likely to define how Russia policy evolves in Brussels.
Regardless of the poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of the leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Borrell still went ahead with his trip to Moscow. Lavrov outplayed Borrell, calling the EU an ‘unreliable partner’ and condemning leaders of EU states for allegedly ‘lying’ about Navalny’s poisoning. But the lowest point in this episode was reached at the joint press conference, during which the EU foreign policy chief was seemingly trolled by a Sputnik journalist, who encouraged Borrell to condemn the US embargo on Cuba. The purpose of this question was clearly to highlight differences between the EU and the US, and Borrell swallowed the bait, precisely as Moscow had intended.
Lavrov was quick to use this opportunity to condemn the sanctions policy against Russia over the annexation of Crimea, denouncing them as ‘unilateral and illegitimate restrictions’ and further lectured Borrell on how the EU is resorting to methods from ‘the colonial past’. And, as if the Moscow visit was not enough of a humiliation, Russia has expelled three EU diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for allegedly attending ‘unsanctioned protests’ in support of Navalny.
Despite calls for Borrell to attend Navalny’s trial, which was occurring at the same time, he failed to do so, providing a dubious explanation that if he had met with Navalny this would have given the wrong impression that the EU accepts the situation – yet another time the EU has failed to act instead of just issuing statements of concern. The Kremlin clearly does not care about bland statements from EU officials, which have had no success in pressuring them into releasing jailed opponents.
Post Facto Justifications
After the humiliating trip to Moscow and heavy criticism from other EU diplomats, Borrell attempted to justify his decision to visit Moscow. In his blog post, he recast the trip as an eye-opener, and admitted that EU–Russia relations have reached their lowest point. ‘Russian authorities did not want to seize this opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue with the EU’, claimed Borrell. However, Moscow’s malign activities on European soil, its refusal to comply with international obligations or abide by the norms of international law, have been evident for some time, and did not require an ‘eye-opening’ visit. It has also been clear that Moscow has no intentions of normalising relations with the EU. Borrell’s visit once again proves that attempting ‘resets’ with Russia is doomed to fail.
Yet the Moscow trip did result in one positive outcome: it hastened the decision to impose sanctions on top Russian officials responsible for Navalny’s detention and prosecution. On 2 March, the EU and the US imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials. The EU sanctions include asset freezes and travel bans for four Russian officials: Alexander Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee; Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard; Igor Krasnov, prosecutor-general; and Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Prison Service. The US imposed broader sanctions on seven individuals. This is the first case of the US targeting Russian officials under the new human rights sanctions regime, while expanding the sanctions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act over the poisoning of Navalny.
The visit fiasco may act as a useful reminder that in dealing with Russia, close coordination between the EU and the US remains crucial. The tougher positioning of the Biden administration on Russia’s malign activities represents an opportunity for the EU to increase coordinated engagement, which was largely missing under the Trump presidency.
The Lack of Consensus Within the EU
So far, the sanctions have had limited to no effect in countering Russia’s malign activities on European soil. Some European states are reluctant to sacrifice the economic benefits of close relations with Russia. Italy has recently proposed economic cooperation and engagement on regional conflicts with Russia, which will be discussed at the 25–26 March summit between EU member state leaders.
Ahead of the meeting, Germany has issued a ‘non-paper’, calling for selective engagement with Russia on climate change. The document acknowledges that Russia’s foreign policy is unlikely to change fundamentally in the short-term, yet it urges the EU to develop a more structured approach on how to engage with Russia on key issues and push Moscow to take more responsibility for resolving global issues such as conflicts, climate change, security, healthcare, trade and migration. The document also states that the EU should approach Russia selectively at a time of its own choosing. While Germany is betting on getting long-term economic dividends from the natural gas pipeline project Nord Stream 2, selective engagement with Moscow seems like wishful thinking.
The snag, as always, is the lack of consensus over Russia policy among EU member states. Germany and France have continuously advocated for engagement, while Serbia, Italy and Hungary want to strengthen relations and economic ties with Russia, and Poland, Romania and the Baltic states support tougher policies against Moscow. In the past few years, Russian gas exports to Europe have reached historic highs, with state-run Gazprom supplying almost 40% of Europe’s gas. If completed, Nord Stream 2 will enable Moscow to further increase its influence over the EU’s energy policy.
Even now, when EU–Russia relations have reached their lowest point and with international pressure to scrap Nord Stream 2 in reaction to the Navalny poisoning, Germany’s minister of economic affairs and energy, Peter Altmaier, has attempted to separate business projects from human rights violations by suggesting that ‘engagement’ with Russia is still necessary. Despite the calls from the European Parliament to ditch Nord Stream 2, Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately reaffirmed her support for the project. The persistent willingness of European leaders to accommodate Russia’s interests seems destined to continue splitting the EU. Mercifully, however, it is unlikely that Borrell will undertake another visit to Moscow anytime soon.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Sergei Lavrov and Josep Borrell in Moscow. Courtesy of ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Stock Photo