February 10, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9176

Disregarding Columnists' Advice And Fears, Russia Plays Hardball With EU Foreign Policy Chief Borrell

February 10, 2021
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 9176

Prior to the visit by Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to Moscow between February 4-6, Russian columnists warned their government that Russia's position in the West following the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was reminiscent of the Soviet Union's abysmal reputation in the 1970s and as public opinion hardened against it, Moscow had to reckon with an economic war unleashed against it that even its friends in the EU will be unable to prevent. Even the heralded Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, conveying Russian gas to Europe, was in danger. It was no good to stonewall or to claim that police tactics in Russia were benign compared to much tougher treatment of dissidents in the West.

The Russian authorities chose to ignore these suggestions and proceeded to do the very opposite. There was no give on Navalny and he was even trotted back to court to face additional charges in a glass cage. Borrell was forced to learn during his visit of the expulsion of three EU member state diplomats accused of participating in illegal pro-Navalny demonstrations that led to counter- expulsions of Russian diplomats by the European states involved. Borrell was sandbagged at a joint press conference with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov where he was lectured on European human rights violations and learned that Russia viewed the EU as an unreliable partner.[1]

One explanation for the abysmal hospitality shown Borrell is that Russia is now in the grip of security officials, who believe in a tough approach abroad and repression at home and therefore has little inclination to convince foreign states. Another explanation is that Russia knows that Europe will not push relations to the point of no return. It will preserve its options to deal with Russia when it serves its interests. Additionally, as a believer in engagement and critical dialogue Europe cannot foreclose the diplomatic channel.

MEMRI's report on the Borrell visit follows below:

Joint press conference of Josep Borrell and Sergei Lavrov (Source:

Prior to the visit, two prominent Kommersant columnists, Dmitry Drize and Maxim Yusin warned their government that Russia had entered a precarious position in Western public opinion. A day before the visit started, Drize posted an article titled "Western Public Opinion Turns Away from Russia". He warned that Russia could not continue with more of the same. Drize wrote:

"The Kremlin's official commentary, as a tradition, does not cause a sensation: President Vladimir Putin is working, thinking about his people, he has no time to follow all sorts of different trials, as well as to think about his place in history. This was a response to Alexei Navalny's words that the country's leader, 'will leave unfavorable memories of himself'. However, this is for the people to decide, history will figure it out. As for the [official commentary on] protests, there are no changes here too: do not provoke [police] and you will not be detained.

"'In recent days, we have witnessed numerous direct calls for unauthorized rallies, measures are being taken so that these calls, wouldn't lead to some provocative consequences,' said Dmitry Peskov.

"Sergei Lavrov had the more difficult task. The thing is that almost all leading Western countries, as well as the European Union, demanded the unconditional release of Alexei Navalny.

"French President Emmanuel Macron even tweeted in Russian stating that political disagreements are not a crime.

"Moreover, the majority of the world's most influential media put the Navalny's case on the front page with colorful and unpalatable headlines for the Russian authorities. The foreign minister called these actions hysterical, accused the [Western] partners of double standards and claimed that their police were even tougher. He finished his statement by saying that, 'we are a polite people'.

"'We are, after all, a polite people and are used to achieve our goals, seek justice in a polite and cultural manner, as the saying goes, "God dwells not in strength, but in truth". Those who perceive our polite manners as a manifestation of weakness are very much mistaken,' said Sergei Lavrov."

Deeds Not Words Are Required

"The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, is going to pay a visit to Russia. The talks will be serious. Based on the results of his visit, further sanctions decisions [against Russia] might be adopted. Moscow prepares for his visit: a special film has been made, telling that our policemen are 'warm and fuzzy' and the western ones are evil and aggressive; that the Russian power system is in general democratic and law-abiding, in contrast to that of the Western partners.

"It's hard to believe that Lavrov will be able to convince his colleague.

"But the question, in fact, is the following: Can the so-called civilized collective West seriously react to everything that happens [in Russia]? We understand that [the West] doesn't want to feud with Russia. Nevertheless, the current situation is significantly different from that in 2014 after the Ukrainian events. Western public opinion is turning away from Russia. This is already a serious trend.

"It may be too early to draw such conclusions, but, as many have noticed, the situation is really starting to resemble that of the 70s, after [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's] Gulag Archipelago was published in Europe and the USA. This is very important, because their politicians are forced to reckon with public opinion, which, generally speaking, is already happening. The tone of the world leaders' statements getting tougher every day. Now the future of Nord Stream 2 doesn't look so unassailable any more.

"It won't be possible to reverse this trend with phrases such as 'your situation is even worse'; real deeds are required here, not words.

"As for the stance, "Who cares, we can manage without them", it also doesn't sound very pertinent.

"Even the Soviet leaders had to reckon with the West, as the saying goes, 'we do not live on an [isolated] cloud'.

"Our economy remains part of the global economy. A policy of isolation will eventually backfire; this is too risky. Thus, apparently, one should expect a grand bargain, 'we are going to do something for you, you - something for us.' Yet another problem is that there is also public opinion in Russia, which can lean in the wrong direction [for the authorities]."[2]

Two days before the visit, Yusin voiced similar pessimism in an article titled "An Economic War May Be Declared on Moscow" He wrote:

"What is occurring surrounding Alexei Navalny, including his trial and protest actions in Russian cities, could cause an unprecedented crisis in relations between Moscow and the European Union, and lead to a new wave of sanctions against Russia, this time much harsher than those imposed following the Donbass [war]. Recently this gloomy forecast has been voiced by various sources in key European capitals.

"This pessimistic mood was only worsened by the news in the last 24 hours: Paris (via the Secretary of State for European Affairs Clement Beaune) demanded that the Nord Stream 2 project be abandoned as a reaction to Navalny's arrest.

"Until now, France, one of the main European powers, has not made such a radical statement. Now however, as it seems, the country is ready to join the anti-Russian 'camp', whose representatives (primarily the Poles and Balts) demand the most severe sanctions.

"This means that the pressure on Germany, which remains almost the last supporter of the gas pipeline project in the European Union, will intensify.

"According to sources in the EU, the last chance to avoid a catastrophic collapse of Russian-European relations may be an expected visit of High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell to Moscow scheduled for February 4.

"From the very beginning, the EU supporters of the 'hard line' towards Russia opposed this visit. They believed that there was nothing to talk about with the Kremlin, and the very fact of such a visit would be 'a gift to Vladimir Putin.'

"They demanded of Borrell (if he insists on the visit) to issue an ultimatum to Moscow on behalf of Europe, 'if Navalny won't be released before a certain term, new sanctions are inevitable'. However, a quite understandable problem appears: if the EU envoy will issue ultimatums to Moscow, the visit becomes meaningless, and his meeting with Vladimir Putin (which, according to some sources, is still on the Russian president's work schedule) might not even happen at all.

"There is another problem: two days before the Borrell's visit, Alexei Navalny's trial will take place, as a result of which he may be sentenced not to a conditional, but to real prison term. This will create a negative background for the visit, and, perhaps, according to European sources, the visit might be cancelled altogether because of this trial.

"The [possible] failure of Josep Borrell's mission will be a signal for the initiators of a new wave of European sanctions. And the question is, how tough will they [the sanctions] be? Will they be individual or sectoral and whether they will affect the Nord Stream 2 project or not?"

Moscow Risks Pushing Europe Into America's Arms

"There is yet another reason for the Kremlin's anxiety, 'will the Europeans coordinate sanctions policy with the new US administration?'.

"This will become one of the main topics of discussion during the upcoming European visits of the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken. A positive answer to the aforementioned question will mean that an economic war may be declared on Moscow.[3]

Moscow Chooses A Tough Approach

The day of Borrell's arrival, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova gave a briefing in which she provided a foretaste of what Borrell could expect: "As I have mentioned, the United States plays a leading role. We will have a separate talk with them. The UK, Germany, and France have also picked up the tune, replicating the string of groundless accusations against us, and distorting facts when describing events happening in Russia. Let me underscore that we are talking about interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state here. This is how we interpret these statements. One gets the impression that the Western officialdom is refusing to see what has been happening in recent days and months in the EU or the US. They are deliberately diverting the international community's attention from the situation in their own countries, focusing on their version of developments in Russia instead.

"Allow me to remind you of some recent events in those countries – riots, violent clashes between protesters and the police, the use of all possible methods and means of suppressing protests, including firearms as in the United States some time ago. There is the never-ending escalation in the level of violence, as we note. This is what our partners need to pay attention to – the situation in their own countries, and not try to rock Russia's boat...

"We will raise the entire scope of issues (the unacceptable statements, pseudo-assessments, and distortion of facts) at Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's meeting with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell who will be arriving in Russia tomorrow. As a reminder – it is a planned visit."[4]

At a joint press conference, Borrell, who is a Catalan, had to endure the following from Lavrov, who chose the issue of Spain's treatment of those supporting independence for Catalonia: "There are many cases in Europe where the courts are suspected of passing politicized verdicts. I would like to draw your attention to what has never been mentioned in our public statements, notably, the case of three prisoners in Spain who were sentenced to 10 and more years in prison for organizing referendums in Catalonia, something we were accused of provoking without any evidence. I recall this because our court was accused of passing a politicized verdict. The judicial authorities in Germany and Belgium urged the Spanish leaders to revoke the sentences for these three Catalonians. This is what Spanish government authorities replied: 'You know, we have our own judicial system. Don't even think of calling into doubt the decisions that we adopt in our courts under our laws.' This is exactly what we want from the West as regards reciprocity."

Lavrov also voiced doubts that Navalny had been poisoned and accused the German military of doctoring the facts. "I am referring to the issue of finding the truth of what happened with Navalny, when and where. I have spoken about this many times. Neither Russian nor civilian German doctors have found what supposedly went into his body. This was discovered only by German military doctors. This is a tell-tale fact. Our numerous requests to receive the results of these tests from Germany, France, Sweden or the OPCW Technical Secretariat, which has become so tame and obedient, have remained unanswered. They simply do not answer our questions. All they say is 'You know everything yourselves.' But this is simply disrespectful, to put it mildly.

"I think this arrogance on behalf of a supposedly cultured Europe is absolutely unacceptable and inadmissible. But if our partners believe that we do not deserve to have information that would confirm their accusations against Russian leaders, let this be on their conscience."[5]

Novaya Gazeta: 'A Diplomatic Catastrophe'

The liberal Novaya Gazeta lamented the handling of the visit as a "diplomatic catastrophe" resulting in a squandered opportunity for a reset of relations between the EU and Russia and paving the way for further deterioration:

"The guest [Borrell] learned about the expulsion of three European diplomats from Russia right during a meeting with the minister, Sergei Lavrov, who received him. The reason for the expulsion of German, Polish and Swedish diplomats was participation in "unauthorized actions" (diplomats watched demonstrations in support of Navalny in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which is part of their official duties. - Ed.). This demarche by the Russian Foreign Ministry can be viewed as a demonstrative insult...

"No breakthroughs were expected from Borrell's visit, but food for thought was expected on a new strategy for the EU's coexistence with its eastern neighbor, which 15–20 years ago, albeit with doubts and reservations, was considered a partner. The shock of the events in Ukraine has passed, and the state of uncertainty, filled with fruitless arguments about rightness, is already tiresome. Some new normalcy is needed.

"The story of the poisoning and arrest of Alexei Navalny, protest demonstrations in Russia simply coincided with the preparations for the visit. But the capital agenda - with climate change and digitalization, the European Green Deal and new energy, Iran and the Middle East - has been relegated to the background in the media space."

Now, warned the paper, expanded sanctions were in the offing. " As seen from Brussels, Borrell's visit was not very successful. The consequence is likely to be new sanctions. It is not yet known how extensive. One option is to use for the first time the new EU sanctions instrument created last year time. It allows the freezing of the European assets of people and companies that are observed in serious human rights violations or benefitting from them. They will be banned from entering the EU."[6]

The FSB Doesn't Do Diplomacy

Why did Russia set out to deliberately humiliate Borrell? One possibility is that Russia has indeed adopted the who cares, we can manage without them approach, cited by Drize. Russia, since the Crimean annexation is now run by the security services, who are not fond of diplomatic niceties. This opinion was forcefully made by Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of a political analysis firm, and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center on the pages of the British Financial Times: " Back in 2013, when the fraud case against Navalny first came to trial, the Kremlin's political team was smart enough to recognize that a long prison term would only make him a hero. He escaped with a suspended sentence. Now the time for fun and games is over. The clever spin-doctors and masters of political manipulation who thrive in the make-believe world of Russian politics are no longer in charge. Now anti-Putin activities are matters of national security and the preserve of the hard men who run the Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB. The Kremlin has become far more confrontational towards the west, and it is often publicly rude about foreign countries' "warnings" or "concerns". Last week, while the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was in Moscow, Russia expelled diplomats from Germany, Sweden and Poland for the supposed offence of attending anti-Putin protests. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov referred to the EU as 'an unreliable partner'. Essentially, Borrell was treated as the representative of a hostile force."[7]

A New Normalcy

Another explanation is that Russia and the EU have entered into an essentially hostile relationship, but both sides refuse to have it deteriorate further into an irrevocable final rupture.  Professor Oleg Barabanov, a program director at the Valdai Discussion Club think tank and European specialist described the "new normalcy" between Brussels and Moscow:

" This 'new normalcy', however, is by no means new. It is in this vein that relations between Russia and the EU are developing after Crimea and the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. The European Union has adopted five principles that guide its approach to Russia. Four of them are confining in relation to the Russian authorities, but with one rather indicative caveat: the EU is ready to continue its dialogue with Russia in those areas that it considers necessary and beneficial for itself. Russia actually agreed with this approach, judging not by words, but by deeds. In any case, in the foreign policy practice of the Russian authorities, a very clear reluctance was shown to completely severing all ties with the EU and with other Western players after Crimea, and a desire to cling to any opportunity for preserving at least the appearance of normalcy in the dialogue...

"As a result, we can conclude that maintaining a limited dialogue on narrow segments of interest to the EU, against the backdrop of criticism and sanctions on human rights, will become the new normality in relations between Russia and the European Union. Despite the pressure from a number of countries, the EU is unlikely to go for a complete break. The Russian Federation does not want this either. There is no reason to believe that this approach will change in the near future.[8]

Oleg Barabanov (Source:

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, who served for six years in Brussels as Russia's ambassador to NATO, said in an interview with Interfax that this new normalcy worked both ways. Russia would not initiate a rupture with the EU despite its immense dissatisfaction with the latter's recent positions towards Russia.

" Russia has never initiated the curtailment of cooperation with the European Union. An axiom exists: the more acute the crisis, the more the work of diplomats is needed. We proceed from the fact that, all the difficulties notwithstanding, the point of no return in Russia-EU relations has not been passed. The chances of improving the situation by diplomatic methods remain. Maintaining close contacts at the highest possible level through our diplomats in Brussels with representatives of the official structures of the EU, the business community and the general public fully meets this task."[9]

Alexander Grushko (Source:

Barabanov and Grushko appeared to be vindicated by Borrell himself, who found himself under fire upon his return to Brussels for going through with the visit. In his blog Borrell defended his actions despite acknowledging that Russia had drawn further away from Europe.

"I had planned this trip to convey EU positions and to stress our fundamental concerns, but also to test if in some areas where our interests converge, we can try to cooperate, and start building some trust.

"The nature of the challenge we face is clear. Locking ourselves up behind walls and calling on others from the safety of that position will not bring greater security to the EU. And it is not in this way that I see my role as being the first diplomat of the EU. We have to face challenges, including meeting others in their home turf, just when negative events are unfolding to allow us to better assess the situations we are confronting and the actions we should take. I prefer this to remaining reactive and waiting for things to happen. If we want a safer world for tomorrow, we have to act decidedly today and be ready to take some risks."[10]

In this position, Borrell enjoys the backing of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who though sustaining the dual insult of having a German diplomat expelled, and Germany's findings on Navalny impugned, termed maintaining communications with Russia a "diplomatic duty".[11]


[1], February 8. 2021

[2], February 3, 2021.

[3], February 2, 2021.

[4], February 4, 2021.

[5], February 5, 2021

[6], February 6, 2021.

[7], February 7, 2020.

[8], February 5, 2021.

[9], February 4, 2021.

[10], February 7, 2021.

[11], February 8, 2021.

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