How the EU’s icy relationship with Russia plunged to a new low — and why it matters

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell (L) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Moscow, Russia on February 5, 2021. (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 demonstrated diplomatic ties have plunged to a new low, prompting some analysts to question whether the “humiliating” trip could lead to further political consequences.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visited Moscow on Friday to voice the EU’s opposition to the arrest of Alexei Navalny, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Borrell failed to rebuff his Russian counterpart’s comments when standing next to him at the press conference. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had claimed the EU was an “unreliable partner.”

In addition, Borrell learned via Twitter during his visit that Russia had expelled three EU diplomats for attending demonstrations in support of Navalny.

“My meeting with minister Lavrov highlighted that Europe and Russia are drifting apart. It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe,” Borrell said in a blog post two days after the press conference. He described it as “a very complicated visit to Moscow.”

“The EU doesn’t have a proper Russia strategy.”

Jade McGlynn

research fellow, Henry Jackson Society

His controversial trip was so poorly received that a group of 73 European lawmakers said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “should take action, if Borrell does not resign by his own accord.” In a joint letter, they said Borrell failed “to stand for the interests and values of the European Union during his visit,” which caused “severe damage to the reputation of the EU.”

The links between the EU and Russia have been fractious for some time, but their ties are critical given their shared economic, energy and strategic interests.

Jade McGlynn, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank, described the EU-Russia relationship as “coldly combustible” following Borrell’s trip to Moscow. “The EU doesn’t have a proper Russia strategy. There is no point in having a reset with Russia when Russia does not want it,” she said.

‘Very disappointing’ for U.S.-EU ties

Both sides had tried to improve their links on trade, energy, counterterrorism, among others, prior to 2014. In this context, the EU had supported Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, which concluded in 2012.

However, the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 was a turning point in their relationship. The EU opposed the move and imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and companies as a result.

Their ties were further frayed by Russia’s intervention in Syria’s long-running war and in other Middle Eastern conflicts. Additionally, several constitutional reforms in Russia have also sparked concern among European officials, including one that allows Putin to stay in power beyond his current mandate.

“Their relationship has always been challenging,” Ian Lesser, vice president at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, told CNBC, noting that now the ties are just “deteriorating on multiple fronts.”

As a result, Lesser expects “more pressure on the Nord Stream (project), including from Washington D.C.”

Nord Stream 2 is a natural gas pipeline going from Russia to Germany and once completed it would double the flow of energy resources between the two, according to Deutsche Welle.

The project has been sharply criticized, including by the United States, which has imposed sanctions on companies working on the pipeline — a stance that the new U.S. presidency has no intention of changing overnight. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Joe Biden’s administration is against the project.

Some European lawmakers are also of the opinion that Nord Stream 2 should be halted in response to Russia’s poisoning of Navalny. Before returning to Russia last month, Navalny had been recovering in Germany after narrowly surviving what has since been independently confirmed as poisoning by a Novichok nerve agent on August. 20. The Kremlin denies poisoning Navalny.

“I can imagine it’s very disappointing” for the U.S. to observe Friday’s press conference in Moscow, McGlynn said over the phone. She added that the U.S. is probably wondering “do we have a reliable partner who can stand up to Russia?”

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