A bumpy road for EU-Russia relations

By Nina Bachkatov

The 5-6 February meeting, in Moscow, between Josep Borrell, the EU Commission Hight representative and Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has opened an unparallel crisis in the rocky relation between Moscow and Brussels. Ups and downs have been part of that relation since the end of the Cold War. But, even at the most difficult moments, the partners would never have indulged in the stream of emotion that followed this extravagant meeting. The deluge of sharp, undiplomatic, declarations reduce the chances to step into a normalisation process in the short time. It would involve a capacity, and a will, to take the risk of being confronted with charges of being sold to the other, or of accepting a humiliating defeat.The visit of Borrell, the first at that level since 2017, came at a difficult moment. Before to leave Brussels, he had to convince the members states to give their green light in return for his promise to express strong EU’s condemnation of Alexei Navalny’s arrest and the repression of demonstrations. But he made clear he wanted to go to Moscow not as a postman delivering a consensual message about Russia’s internal situation, but as the head of EU foreign affairs. In that capacity, he planned to discuss with different milieux to forge a fuller vision of the situation on which to base his report to March summit due to discuss EU-Russia relations.

Personal and political

Of course, he is a political figure who cannot forget the personal and political aura he might have benefited from a successful mission in Moscow. But he was sincere in his will to unlock the situation, and it cannot have gone unnoticed in the Russian Brussels delegation and in the foreign ministry. This making all the story more puzzling, even if Moscow had made clear that it was not ready anymore to listen to foreign lectures and to react with classic diplomatic signs of nervousness, including protests against unacceptable meddling in Russian affairs.

As soon as Borrell left Moscow, the war of words took over, through declarations and events.

On the EU side, Borrell came back to confront a hostile parliament, members states and diplomats. There were calls for his resignation, and doubts on the professional capacities of a man who accepted to be treated as the envoy of a weak conglomeration of states, defending its crumbling international influence based on a set of universal values they even do not respect in their own countries. The usually suave Lavrov went so far as calling European Union an ‘unreliable partner’ and mentioning the ‘Catalan affair’ to Borrell, a former foreign minister of Spain.

On his return, Borrell declared to MEPs “I had no illusion before the visit, I am even more worried after… One thing became clear, there is no intention on the Russian side to engage in a constructive discussion if we address human rights and political freedom”. In consequence, he said, “it will be for the member states to decide the next step, which could include sanctions and I will put forward concrete proposals”. This will on 22 February, when EU foreign ministers are set to discuss the issue.

On the Russian side, post-summit declarations all went in the same direction – Russia’s internal affairs is nobody else business. Especially when going together with repeated threats of sanctions that would affect European consumers as much as Russian business.

There cannot be any doubts about the seriousness of the declarations because they came directly from president Putin and Minister Lavrov through interviews or texts published on official sites.

On 11 February, in an interview published on the Ministry’s site, Sergei Lavrov said that Russia is ‘ready’ for a break with the European Union if it takes measures that would “create risks for our economy, including in the most sensitive areas”. The day after, during a briefing, the Kremlin hinted that Lavrov’s words had been misinterpreted, but stressed that Russia must get ready for “independence if madness prevails”. Obviously, it had no reservation concerning the second part of Lavrov’s message that “We don’t want to be isolated from the world, but we must be prepared”.

Foreign manoeuvres

On 14 February, Channel 1 broadcasted an interview of president Putin in which he accused the West of using the condemnation of Alexei Navalny to try to “contain” Russia using, as they always did, “Our opponents or our potential opponents… ambitious, power-hungry people”. For him, today as in December 2011-early 2012, the demonstrations are “fed from abroad”. The difference is that he now admits that the movement is taking place, against the backdrop of the widespread “exhaustion, frustration and dissatisfaction” arising from the coronavirus pandemic.

In another typical way, he explained that Russia’s adversaries were ‘starting to be irritated’ by Russia’s “numerous successes” on a military level, but also in its management of the Covid-19 crisis and the development of the Sputnik V vaccine.

That sounds a post-scriptum to the 27 January intervention of president Putin at the online Davos World Economic Forum. Although dressed in diplomatic phrases, the message was repeating the analysis going around for years in diplomatic and academic circles: in the eyes of Russia, the West, especially EU, has gone bankrupt in every way possible, and Moscow is no longer going to move in the same direction with it unless the West reconsiders its position.

This leaves the European continent to be shared between two partners who have not much ideas about the way to go for the benefits of all Europeans. They just agree that they have to plan for doing so, and that they disagree on almost everything, but the recognition of their disagreements.

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