Relations between the West and Russia are entering a new stage, and the chief European diplomat was the first to experience this firsthand

On 9 February, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell shared his findings with the European Parliament after his three-day visit to Moscow.

The head of European diplomacy was harshly criticised both for the very idea of going to Russia amid the persecution of Alexei Navalny by local authorities and the oppression of protesters, and for his unconvincing behaviour during his visit to the country when he allowed himself to be openly ridiculed. But Borrell’s conclusions seem to have been worth it.

In his opinion, Russia did not live up to the expectations associated with it in the 1990s and never became a modern democracy. Since 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, the political dialogue between Russia and the EU has stalled, and Borrell, in his words, “wanted to understand whether the Russian government is interested in preventing the deterioration of our relations and wants to take the opportunity to establish a dialogue. The answer was clear: no, it is not interested.” Earlier, in his own official blog, Borrell wrote: “My meeting with Minister Lavrov and the signals of the Russian authorities during this visit confirmed that Europe and Russia are drifting in opposite directions. It seems that Russia is increasingly separating itself from Europe and sees democratic values as an existential threat.”

It may not have been necessary to travel to Russia to draw such conclusions, but one’s own experience is the most convincing argument.

Borrell will always remember the humiliation he experienced on Russian land.

The European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs’ visit to Moscow is indeed a rare event.

Borrell’s predecessor, Federica Mogherini, travelled to Russia during her tenure only once since November 2014, in April 2017.

And although the contacts of European colleagues with Sergey Lavrov, the permanent Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, take place constantly – by phone or abroad, a home meeting is a form of contact of the highest depth and intensity. Three years ago, Lavrov did not allow himself to openly show disrespect for his guest, and in the person of Borrell, the Russian Minister publicly accused the EU of deteriorating relations with Russia, calling the organisation an “unreliable partner.” The culmination of the insult was the expulsion of three European diplomats – a German, a Pole and a Swede – during the European Commissioner’s stay in Moscow. Lavrov’s efforts were complemented by Russian journalists at a press conference, who simply ridiculed the stranger.

It seemed that relations with Europe could not become worse, but the Russian leaders managed to do that.

The head of European diplomacy did not like the role of a whipping boy.

A meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is to take place on 22 February, and a summit of EU heads of state and government will be held on 25-26 March. “At these meetings, decisions will be made on further steps. It would be right to include sanctions. I will make concrete proposals, using my own right of initiative as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy,” Borrell promised.

Brussels does not intend to sever relations with Russia. A certain dialogue will be maintained, as well as the support for Russian civil society, but now the issue of new sanctions, which the current leadership is literally asking for, is urgent. The Brussels bureaucracy may be slow, but if its movement is gaining momentum, it will be absolutely impossible to stop or weaken the process.

It should be mentioned that the new American administration is set to act tough in the Russian direction. In a foreign policy speech at the Department of State on 4 February, President Biden bluntly stated: “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia” for its aggressive policy. Together with Washington’s intention to restore and strengthen allied relations with Europe, abandoned under Donald Trump, this will mark the beginning of a new period of containment of Russia by the West, when there are no illusions left, the desire to “understand Putin and communicate with him” has disappeared, and the task is to help the current Russian leadership isolate itself from the outside world by blocking the Kremlin’s efforts to affect European processes and beyond. Josep Borrell is now a staunch supporter of this approach. It was worth going to Moscow.

Leonid Shvets

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