Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, is charging headfirst into a diplomatic nightmare this week, as he touches down in Moscow for a scheduled meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The meeting, which had been in Borrell’s diary for some time, comes after another weekend of protests across Russia over the ongoing detention of Alexey Navalny, currently the most famous critic of President Vladimir Putin.
Borrell won’t need reminding that Navalny is lucky to be walking the earth, as Russian agents allegedly tried to kill him via a poisoning in the summer of 2020. Russia denies involvement in Navalny’s poisoning. Putin himself said in December that if Russian security services had wanted to kill Navalny, they “would have finished” the job.
After a five-month recovery in Germany, Navalny returned to Moscow on January 17, but was arrested after landing, allegedly for violating his parole. On Tuesday of this week, a court decides if his 3.5-year suspended sentence on fraud charges should be converted into a jail term.
The optics for the EU are not great. The fact that Borrell’s visit will go ahead – despite the protests and continued imprisonment of Russia’s most prominent opposition figure – with no pre-conditions has enraged critics of the EU’s relationship with Russia.
“If the EU is serious about having a dialogue with Russia and not just with a group of thugs around Putin, then Borrell should have made meeting with Navalny a pre-condition,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russia-based opposition politician who has been poisoned twice in the past five years.
Criticism aimed at Brussels doesn’t come exclusively from Russia. Even within the bloc there is frustration at the contrast between the EU’s lofty ambitions to promote democratic values and human rights around the world and its friendly relations with wealthy autocrats.
“With Turkey, China and Russia, we appease them by reaching fudged deals that set precedents of letting them get away with human rights abuses and rigging elections,” a European diplomat told CNN. “We have become distressingly comfortable with taking the moral high ground but not walking the walk.”
Europe does indeed have complicated relations with Turkey, China and Russia. A complex mix of geography, security, and economics mean that Brussels must have a transactional relationship with all three. What’s unique about Russia for Europe is Moscow’s naked ambition to be a regional rival in Eastern Europe.
The question of what, exactly, Europe can do about Russia comes up often. For the time being, the answer seems to be very little. A cynic might take the view that this all boils down to money.
“There is no doubt that the EU has the mechanisms to clamp down harder on wealthy Putin cronies, on European banks who hold and launder money from Russian oligarchs and on Russian firms linked to the Kremlin,” said Steven Blockmans, director of research at the Centre for European Policy Studies. “The problem is political will. Lots of European nations have major business interests in Russia as well as inward investment from Russia.”
The best-known of these interests is Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that would connect Russia to Germany and provide a third of the EU’s gas requirements. Gazprom, the state-owned Russian gas giant, is the project’s sole shareholder.
The pipeline exposes an odd quirk in the dynamic of the EU’s member states and how they differ in attitudes to Russia. “Nord Stream 2 is highly controversial among the member states as they either vehemently reject it or vehemently support it,” said Velina Tchakarova, head of institute at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.
Tchakarova went on to explain that the “bloc of the Central and Eastern European countries, which are also members of NATO, is in favor of a much tougher stance,” but that the traditional, wealthier European powers such as Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands want “a more balanced position due to their strong trade interests and economic ties.”
France’s Europe minister called on Germany to scrap the Nord Stream 2 project on Monday, in the light of Navalny’s detention.
“Sanctions have already been put in place, we could impose others, but we must be clear, it is not enough,” Clement Beaune told French radio station France Inter.
“It is necessary to go further, the option of Nord Stream 2 is being considered, but it is a German decision since it is located in Germany and we have always said that we have the greatest doubts regarding this project,” Beaune added.
After the poisoning of Navalny, some speculated that there would be consequences, including for Nord Stream 2. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated last week that she was happy for the pipeline to go ahead. Worse, in the aftermath of his poisoning, only six individuals were sanctioned, and when Navalny was arrested in January, the most Brussels could muster was a series of statements condemning the arrest.
Money and business interests might be at the core of Europe’s Russia problem. However, it’s also true that Putin has political allies within the EU, complicating how effectively Europe can influence Moscow.
“In Hungary, Italy, France, even the Netherlands, Putin has admirers in the political mainstream, which makes any kind of united position on punishing Russia impossible,” explained Blockmans.
The opposition in Russia is also frustrated at the fact the EU does have the tools to hurt Putin and his inner circle directly, yet opts instead for sanctions that miss the target.
“A lot of these sanctions end up hitting the Russian people more broadly and missing the guiltiest crooks,” said Kara-Murza. This backfires on two fronts as it hands the Kremlin the propaganda win of claiming that the Russiaphobic West is hurting the Russian people.”
Tchakarova is not optimistic that stronger measures will be taken any time soon. The “cancellation of Nord Stream 2, the targeting of Putin’s inner circle, cutting off political ties and diplomatic isolation could work,” she said, but are “unrealistic, given the current complexity of global affairs.”
This global picture is the final piece of the puzzle in understanding why Putin’s Russia is such an insoluble problem for Europe.
“Europe’s relations with Russia have been difficult since 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. Since then, we’ve witnessed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, war in Donbas as well as Russia’s tireless support to the Assad-regime in Syria,” said Urmas Paet, a member of the European parliament and the former Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs. “In addition, there have been numerous reports on the intimidation of the Russian political opposition, journalists and human rights activists. With its actions, the Kremlin demonstrates that it does not care how it’s seen or fear the consequences of its actions.”
Putin’s aggression overseas has granted him influence in key regions, especially the Middle East. Even if he is an untrustworthy partner, the EU has to acknowledge that he is a strategic partner.
This is certainly how some less hawkish EU officials justify their position. “Geography is stubborn. Everyone agrees the Navalny situation is very serious, but if you want stability on the continent and elsewhere, dialogue with Russia is essential. All of the big member states understand this,” said one EU diplomat.
Brussels officials accept it is complicated. From their perspective, they have to juggle Putin’s domestic oppression, international aggression, the interests of their own citizens who share a continent with Russia while accepting that the EU is the closest thing to a regional superpower that can stand up to Moscow. They think, not unreasonably, that That’s all well and good, but the EU’s tightrope act has led to a situation where its foreign policy chief might have to endure the embarrassing spectacle of an all-smiles meeting just hours after Russia’s most prominent critic is jailed on questionable charges.
When Borrell meets with Lavrov, he will no doubt raise a range of uncomfortable issues. The problem is the only person feeling uncomfortable will be Borrell.
The EU will not discuss further sanctions on the Russian Federation until March. It’s unlikely those sanctions will go after Putin in any meaningful way. And, unless the Russian President has a Damascene conversion, Borrell’s visit will be forgotten before his plane’s even left Moscow.