EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) hold a joint press conference after their meeting on February 5, 2021 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Russian Foreign Ministry | Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
LONDON – A recent press conference between the EU’s top diplomat and Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister revealed that diplomatic relations have sunk to a new low, leading some analysts to wonder if the “humiliating” journey will continue political consequences.
EU foreign policy leader Josep Borrell visited Moscow on Friday to express EU opposition to the arrest of Alexei Navalny, a fierce critic of the Russian president Wladimir Putin. However, Borrell could not reject the comments of his Russian counterpart when he stood next to him at the press conference. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had claimed that the EU was an “unreliable partner”.
Furthermore, during his visit, Borrell learned via Twitter that Russia had expelled three EU diplomats for participating in demonstrations in support of Navalny.
“My meeting with Minister Lavrov showed that Europe and Russia are drifting apart. It seems that Russia is increasingly decoupling from Europe,” Borrell said in a blog post two days after the press conference. He described it as “a very complicated visit to Moscow”.
His controversial trip was so badly received that a group of 73 European lawmakers said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “should take action if Borrell does not resign”. In a joint letter, they said Borrell had failed to “stand up for the interests and values of the European Union during his visit,” which “seriously damaged the EU’s reputation”.
Relations between the EU and Russia have been inconsistent for some time, but their relationship is crucial given their common economic, energetic and strategic interests.
Jade McGlynn, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank, described the EU-Russia relationship as “coldly flammable” after Borrell’s trip to Moscow. “The EU does not have a real Russia strategy. It makes no sense to do a reset with Russia if Russia does not want to,” she said.
Before 2014, both sides had tried, among other things, to improve their links with trade, energy and counter-terrorism. In this context, the EU supported Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, which was completed in 2012.
However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 marked a turning point in their relationship. The EU rejected the move and then imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and companies.
Their connections have been further marred by Russia’s intervention in the long-running war in Syria and other conflicts in the Middle East. In addition, several constitutional reforms in Russia have also raised concerns among European officials, including one that allows Putin to remain in power beyond his current mandate.
“Their relationship has always been challenging,” Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told CNBC, noting that the relationship is now only “deteriorating on several fronts.”
As a result, Lesser expects “more pressure on the Nord Stream (project), including Washington DC”.
Nord Stream 2 is a natural gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany and, once completed, would double the amount of electricity in energy resources between the two, according to Deutsche Welle.
The project has been heavily criticized, including by the United States, which has imposed sanctions on companies working on the pipeline – an attitude the new US presidency does not want to change overnight. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Joe Biden’s administration was against the project.
Some European lawmakers also believe that Nord Stream 2 should be stopped in response to the Russian poisoning of Navalny. Before returning to Russia last month, Navalny was recovering in Germany after narrowly surviving what has since been confirmed as poisoning by a Novichok nerve agent in August. 20. The Kremlin denies the poisoning of Navalny.
“I can imagine that it is very disappointing,” said McGlynn on the phone as the US watched the press conference in Moscow on Friday. She added that the US is likely to be wondering, “Do we have a reliable partner who can hold our own against Russia?”