Russia’s combative treatment of the EU’s top diplomat during a landmark trip there has triggered a political outcry — but little expectation that the European bloc will end divisions over how to handle the Kremlin.
Most observers say the EU-Russia spat will freeze already icy relations even harder and increase the chances that the Europeans will move towards sanctions over Russia’s detention of Alexei Navalny, the opposition activist.
But few see it as likely to trigger a fundamental shift by powerful member states led by Germany and France to a more aggressive policy, given economic, energy and strategic interests in play.
EU legislators delivered a stinging backlash on Tuesday to both Russia and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, over a troubled visit to Moscow last week that some member states had opposed.
Kati Piri, a Dutch social democrat MEP, told Borrell Russia had used him to “humiliate and offend” the EU, adding that blame over his trip should be shared with member states.
“Would it also have happened if the EU leaders [had] taken a tougher stance?” she said of the first visit by a top EU official to Moscow since 2017. “What we need is a united strategy on Russia — not an appeasement, in view of the challenges Russia is posing to our security.”
Borrell has drawn heavy criticism in private from some bloc diplomats over his handling of what he later branded an “aggressively-staged” press conference on Friday with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s veteran foreign minister. EU governments, though, are still more angered by Moscow’s decision to embarrass Borrell by expelling diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden while he was in the country.
Borrell defended his trip and said EU-Russia relations had come “full circle” since the fall of the Berlin wall more than three decades ago, as Moscow had not “fulfilled expectations of becoming a modern democracy”.
“Instead there is a deep disappointment and growing mistrust between the European Union and Russia,” he said. “Many of the traditional pillars of Russia-European relations are giving way.”
In Germany, there was widespread fury over the Kremlin’s behaviour. Berlin ensured the EU imposed economic sanctions on Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea, but has taken a less confrontational stance since.
“It’s a real blow for all those in Germany and Europe who advocate dialogue with Russia,” said Jürgen Hardt, foreign affairs spokesman of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. “Every time we stretch out our hand to them, they push it away.”
Yet there is also profound disagreement over how to react. Germany’s opposition has insisted Berlin pull the plug on Nord Stream 2, the new pipeline bringing Russian gas directly across the Baltic Sea to Europe. But Merkel’s government is standing by the project.
Instead, her coalition partners say the EU must step up its use of sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s henchmen and businessmen who support his regime.
“We need targeted sanctions against the Russian elite, the pro-Kremlin oligarchs,” said Nils Schmid, foreign affairs spokesman for the German Social Democrats, junior partner in Merkel’s coalition. “There’s no point in having yet another debate about the rights and wrongs of Nord Stream 2.”
Moscow has shown no signs of regret about Borrell’s visit or its fallout, which included tit-for-tat expulsions of Russian diplomats on Monday by Germany, Sweden and Poland.
“Who is moving away from whom,” Lavrov asked in response to Borrell’s comments that Russia was “progressively disconnecting itself from Europe”. “Perhaps it is the European Union itself that is alienating Russia, the Russian language and culture?”
Lavrov said he had used his talks with Borrell to “reaffirm” Russia’s desire to reset relations “based not on unilateral demands, but on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests”.
Putin’s spokesman said Moscow’s expulsion of the EU diplomats showed it “clearly is not going to tolerate” interference in its domestic affairs.
“Russia has been and remains interested in restoring relations between Moscow and Brussels. It wasn’t us who initiated the curtailment of those relations,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.
Andras Racz, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said Russia’s aim had been to send a clear message to the Europeans — and in this it had succeeded.
“That message is: ‘don’t interfere in our internal affairs’. And for them, Navalny is very much an internal matter,” he said. “They also wanted to send a signal that they are only interested in good relations with the EU if it’s on Russia’s own terms.”
The sharp rebuff raises a fundamental challenge for EU countries, led by France’s president Emmanuel Macron, who favour outreach to the Kremlin.
That faction is now weakened, while advocates of a tougher approach, such as the three Baltic states and Poland, feel vindicated.
Arnaud Dubien, director of the Franco-Russian Observatory think-tank, said Macron persisted in seeking to negotiate with Putin even in the face of resistance from some within his own administration. He spoke to the Russian leader almost every week.
“The results are worse than thin — non-existent really,” said Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, Russia expert at the French international relations institute Ifri, of the French leader’s overtures. “The only thing Russia wants from this dialogue is for the EU to change its behaviour. Russia is not willing to change its own behaviour at all.”