It was a masterclass in the worst of European Union diplomacy. Josep Borrell’s controversial visit to Moscow was a triumph. Sadly, though, for the Russians. In light of the treatment. of opposition leader Alexei Navalny — imprisoned this week after he returned to the country whose leadership had tried to murder him — there had been calls for Borrell to cancel his visit.
At the very least, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy needed to make a robust defence of the opposition, whose marches had been met with violence from the security forces, and whose leaders were being persecuted and harassed, to prove that there was genuine will behind the EU’s professed commitment to universal human values.
On Navalny’s arrest, Ursula von der Leyen had issued an underwhelming 54-word statement demanding his release. Was this just empty rhetoric? We looked to Borrell for clarification.
And that he certainly provided. Even though Navalny was back in court, facing yet another dubious charge (this time of defaming a world war two veteran) Borrell rejected calls for him to visit the trial. Other diplomats did, including a representative from the British embassy, but Borrell opted not to, even though he had previously said he would be 'very happy to see Mr Navalny'. His spokesperson ingeniously spinned that had Borrell met with him, 'it would give the wrong impression that we accept the situation'.
As yet unexplained is quite why that prevented him from visiting an open court, or meeting representatives from Navalny’s team, or even seeing people from the independent civil society organisations that had monitored the official violence against protesters and provided legal aid to those arrested. Indeed, he must have delighted his hosts by stating that the EU had at present no plans to place any new sanctions on Russia (even though certain member states are certainly pressing for action). (And that he hoped Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine would soon be certified in Europe.)
If he hoped this would generate reciprocal amity, though, he would be sorely disabused. Borrell, apparently: 'conveyed to [Foreign] Minister Lavrov our deep concern and reiterated our appeal for his release.'
An unrepentant Sergey Lavrov, who can pivot from geniality to equally-staged fury at the drop of a fur hat, lectured him about the iniquities of Europe both in private and then in public at a joint press conference. A journalist from the Russian government-controlled news agency Sputnik used the opportunity to ambush Borrell with a question about Cuba that baited him into criticising US policy. Perhaps no wonder that Lavrov concluded that Moscow considered the EU an 'unreliable partner'.
Then, as if all that were not enough, the Russians announced that they were expelling three European diplomats — a Swede, a Pole and a German — for having the temerity of attending the recent marches. The Kremlin decided that they were not simply fact-finding, as is perfectly normal, but actually taking part in 'unsanctioned protests'.
But it’s OK, because Borrell has 'strongly condemned this decision' and thinks that it 'should be reconsidered'. Quite why Moscow decided to go out of its way to give Borrell such a determined kicking is not wholly clear. It may be that it has over-reached, especially by provoking Berlin, Warsaw and Stockholm. Nonetheless, the Kremlin clearly decided it wanted to make a statement.
In part, this is because, in my experience, the Russians don’t really believe the EU exists. Of course, they know there is a such a beast, and there is an EU ambassador in Moscow. Yet they feel that genuine power still rests with nation states and the EU, as such, is an irrelevance.
The Kremlin, as usual, responds to being on the backfoot by moving into the offensive. It wants to prove that it cannot be browbeaten or induced to change its policies through sanctions. Given that there seems to be a concern to avoid picking a fight with an already-vigilant Biden administration, presumably they felt that they could bully Borrell and the EU with impunity.
We will have to see if they are proven right.