People remember moments. Over the years, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has stressed the importance of talking to Russia. And so, against the protests of some, he went to Moscow earlier this month to test, in his own words, his counterpart’s position through principled diplomacy, whether or not the Russian government was interested in addressing the two side’s differences and reversing the negative trend in their relations.

Borrell also went to personally deliver the EU’s condemnation of the arrest of Russia’s opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, following his return from Germany, where he had been recovering for the last six months after being poisoned with a chemical nerve agent while in Siberia.  

Despite claiming to have understood the risks, Borrell was caught by surprise and was utterly outplayed by Russia’s veteran foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. News coverage showed Borrell sitting on an edge of his chair and semi-smilingly while Lavrov lectured him and the EU. Lavrov then went on to also announce that Russia was to expel three European diplomats for attending demonstrations in support of Navalny; to which Borrell could only offer, in typical meek Brussels fashion, a mild disagreement. 

Within days a cross-party group of over 70 MEPs wrote in a letter initiated by Riho Terras,  an MEP from Estonia, demanding that Borrell resign or be dismissed for “Borrell’s misjudgment in proactively deciding to visit Moscow and his failure to stand up for the interests and values of the European Union”.

Amid the impassioned calls, however, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen backed Borrell and said through her spokesperson that her foreign policy head had her full support. 

Taken by itself, the idea that both von der Leyen and Borrell want to keep the diplomatic channels open with Russia should not be criticized. The timing for the visit was unfortunate. Borrell certainly knows that diplomacy has its own codes. Simple things, such as having a meeting with Lavrov, shaking hands with him in public, or appearing at a press conference, would send a message. 

There are six stages recognised within every crisis: warning, risk assessment, response, management, resolution, and recovery. Borrell and the EU establishment are seemingly caught behind the ball and are unprepared to stand up to the violent and manipulative machine of Putin’s illiberal regime. The EU’s foreign policy team went to Moscow looking for a recovery before they had reached any sort of crisis resolution.

Following this humiliation, as well as the outcry in media, and the criticism from MEPs and analysts of all stripes, Borrell sharpened his rhetoric and called the situation ‘a crossroads for the EU’.

His timing was fundamentally wrong again.

The EU has been at crossroads with Russia since 2014 when the main parameters of the European geopolitical landscape of the 21st century were drawn following the Russian occupation of Crimea. Since then, Putin’s regime has been caught apparently sponsoring military invasions, cyber and other terrorism abroad, as well as carrying out a violent campaign of oppression against political dissent in Russia.

The European Union needs to manage this and prepare a more robust response, if necessary, and long before a desirable resolution may appear.

It was not enough for Borrell to have the determination or to present his own views, it was necessary for him to anticipate an interlocutor’s position and to select the right moment and then act decisively. Borrell, himself, is to blame for the fiasco as this was his time to deliver.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his meeting with the Secretary-General of the Palestine Liberation Organization Saeb Erekat in Moscow. EPA-EFE//YURI KOCHETKOV

Borrell is an aeronautical engineer and economist by training, as well as a professor of mathematics. He is an experienced politician and diplomat who entered politics in the 1970s during Spain’s transition to democracy following decades of rule by its Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco.  His experience should have left him well-equipped to tackle Lavrov and deliver a stern message from the world’s biggest trading bloc to the government of the Russian Federation. 

As it stands now, Borrell should probably step down. The West’s main adversary has demonstratively outplayed him, and it would be hard for Borrell to recover from the embarrassment that will now, most decidedly, negatively reflect on the entire EU.

The far bigger problem, however, is that the bloc remains woefully divided in regards to policy when it comes to dealing with the Kremlin. This is unlikely to change. Despite many of Europe’s capitals growing increasingly alarmed by Moscow’s behavior, there still remains no general consensus about a ‘unified EU position’ towards Russia. Instead, national strategic and economic interests – which are in no way aligned – have taken precedence.

Even though Germany played a major role in bringing about the EU’s sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it is still traditionally insisting on talking to Russia, regardless of Putin’s shenanigans.

A participant of a single protest in support of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny holds a poster saying ‘Freedom for Navalny, Putin on trial’ in St.Petersburg. Navalny was detained after his arrival to Moscow from Germany on January 17, 2021. EPA-EFE//ANATOLY MALTSEV

Germany continues to follow the historic Ostpolitik (eastern policy) of former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, which, in the second half of the Cold War, anticipated a gradual reconciliation between Eastern and Western Europe – a view that was held at many Germans at the time.

This more open approach replaced the tougher stance towards the Soviet bloc of earlier West German governments, which was known as Hallstein Doctrine. Merkel’s administration is resisting calls to back out of the controversial Nord-Stream II gas pipeline project with Russian energy giant Gazprom, as she prefers to use targeted sanctions against wealthy Kremlin supporters to punish Moscow for Navalny’s arrest and the subsequent violent dispersal of peaceful anti-Putin protestors across Russia.

Merkel and her future successor, whoever that may be in 2021, are likely to continue pursuing this path.

French President Emmanuel Macron also favors dialogue and even hopes for a strategic reset in EU-Russia relations. In the meantime, while some other EU members often sit on the fence, Poland and the Baltic states want far tougher actions to be taken.

As the EU will be contemplating the response to Russia in the coming days and weeks, the manipulations and humiliation of the EU senior foreign policy representative by Lavrov, and the rhetoric in Russia that followed Borrell’s visit, should not be left unpenalized. 

To preserve his regime, Putin has built a type of mafia capitalism that projects an image of strength through people, like Lavrov, talking tough. It has also fully subjugated Russia’s pliant media sphere and is backed by an all-powerful security apparatus. 

Europe is a liberal continent. There is an internal contradiction within liberalism as to whether our tolerance for others should include tolerating and extending outreach to illiberal regimes, such as Russia. The West’s approach to regimes, like Putin’s, should not include life-long bans or anticipate passive tolerance. The free world should not shy away from passionately confronting them on every turf and on our terms. 

There is now a need to strengthen and expand Europe’s sanctions against Russia. They should be optimized and prioritized, with the most efficient packages preserved and additions conditioned on Moscow taking certain peaceful steps toward political solutions and the legitimate introduction of human rights in Russia.

On June 24 of last year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) – an institution charged with upholding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law – reinstalled Russia’s voting rights after it had been stripped following the annexation of Crimea. That 2019 PACE decision marked the first time that a European institution has completely abandoned one of the major sanctions that have been placed on Russia since 2014.

PACE’s decision nearly a year ago was done prematurely. Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment demonstrate that Russia has wholly ignored the concepts of the rule of law and the promotion of democracy.

French President Emmanuel Macron at the Necker Hospital in Paris. EPA-EFE//THOMAS SAMSON

A significant part of the West’s current sanctions against Russia were introduced prior to the start of the Ukraine crisis. The first sanctions, in fact, appeared in 2005 when Russia became involved in an active global confrontation with the West over increased human rights violations.

Since then, additional packages have been imposed for Russia’s intermingling with Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Syria. Moscow has been trying to weaken, or fully free themselves from, these sanctions due to the fact that they are having an impact, even though Russia is still actively undermining the world’s stability.

Of all the sanctions imposed against Russia, the most viable are those that prohibit Russian companies from having access to vital Western technologies and financial systems. However, they often don’t cover the entirety of a targeted sector and, consequently, their impact is weaker than expected. These gaps need to be closed.

The European Union must, together with the United States and the United Kingdom, do much more to tackle the billions of euros of Russian dirty money that is laundered through investments that are managed in the EU and by British financial institutions. Restrictions on investment visas have already been in place since 2015, but more could be done against anonymous companies and dubious investments. The same approach also applies to Russia’s support of right-wing political parties in Europe, the US, and UK. 


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