February 07, 2021
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell attend a news conference following their talks in Moscow, Feb. 5, 2021.
By Jamie Dettmer | VOA News
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell came under scathing criticism Saturday for his visit to Moscow, which several of the bloc’s member states had urged him to cancel, fearing the Kremlin would manipulate the three-day trip to its advantage.
His critics, including former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, along with Western diplomats, say their worst fears were realized during Borrell’s Friday joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in which Borrell said no EU member state had yet to propose new sanctions over the recent imprisonment of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, Alexey Navalny.
Just moments before the press conference, Kremlin officials announced their decision to expel three EU diplomats — from Germany, Poland and Sweden — for allegedly taking part in the unsanctioned Navalny rallies, a move possibly timed to humiliate Borrell.
Critics say that the propaganda trap is likely to embolden Russian authorities to persist in their brutal paramilitary-style crackdown on internal dissent and civil society activists who’ve rallied for Navalny’s release.
Time to resign?
“Borrell has to think about resigning,” tweeted EU lawmaker Rasa Juknevičienė, a former Lithuanian defense minister, condemning the overall tenor of Borrell’s message that the EU and Russia “can cooperate despite misunderstandings.”
Although it was clear before Borrell’s arrival in Moscow that the Kremlin would “mock him,” Juknevičienė tweeted, the whole of the EU has instead been ridiculed.
In a statement released Saturday summarizing his visit, Borrell said: “Diplomatic channels need to remain open, not only to de-escalate crises or incidents, but to hold direct exchanges, deliver firm and frank messages, all the more so when relations are far from satisfactory.”
Borrell’s visit, which was planned before Navalny demonstrations erupted in more than 100 cities and towns across Russia, prompted some EU member states to lobby Brussels to cancel the event, fearing it was badly timed and would expose EU impotence. The Baltic states, alongside Poland and Romania, called instead for a new set of sanctions to be imposed on Russia. Their fear was that a dialogue with the Kremlin over the Navalny case at this stage would be a hopeless endeavor that would undermine EU credibility.
Borrell, who went to Moscow on his own initiative in the first high-level EU trip of its type in four years, suggested he was accepting a long-standing invitation from Lavrov.
Before Friday’s press conference, Borrell, a former Spanish foreign minister, warned his Russian counterparts that Navalny’s treatment had brought EU-Russian relations to a “low point,” and he reiterated EU demands for Navalny’s release.
That message was undercut, however, when Borrell told Lavrov that no EU member state had proposed extra sanctions on Russia for now, which other EU officials said was inaccurate.
Navalny was detained upon his January return to Moscow for parole violations, which his supporters say is a spurious charge, after recovering in Germany from a near-fatal poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.
His arrest has triggered the largest anti-Kremlin protests seen in Russia since 2011, and more than 10,000 of his supporters have been detained by police amid allegations of police brutality, according to rights monitors.
Borrell is also drawing fire for standing silently by Lavrov’s side as the Russian foreign minister dubbed the EU an “unreliable partner” and accused European leaders of lying about Navalny, dismissing the West’s conclusion — confirmed by laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden, along with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — that Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent.
“This is simply appalling,” tweeted Verhofstadt, who slammed Borrell for being ill-prepared. “Not just that Russia makes a fool of the EU but that we let it happen.”
Borrell “should simply not have gone to Moscow without a message of EU strength & a mandate for sanctions to back it up,” Verhofstadt tweeted.
Borrell was also criticized for failing to protest more forcefully the Kremlin’s last-minute decision to expel the trio of EU diplomats.
“As expected, Lavrov outplayed Borrell,” one senior EU diplomat told Politico. “Speaking in football terms, Lavrov was scoring goal after goal … and Borrell was missing them all. No defense and no attack.”
The European Commission’s spokespeople offered few specifics when inundated with questions about the visit at their Friday press conference, largely defending Borrell’s effort to foster dialogue with Moscow while repeating EU support for Navalny’s release.
Private criticism from US
U.S. officials have not publicly criticized the EU diplomat, but in private they said that they had serious misgivings before he left for Moscow and that he had been maneuvered by the Kremlin into a highly choreographed trap.
Former Western diplomats have not been charitable, joining in a chorus of disapproval Saturday.
“Borrell disgraced himself today with his clumsy visit to Moscow,” tweeted former British diplomat David Clark.
“The EU talks about achieving ‘strategic autonomy’ but it first needs to achieve strategic maturity,” Clark added. “It remains hopelessly weak and naive in its dealings with Putin.”
While Navalny supporters expressed frustration with Borrell, he did meet with representatives from civil society, which he said in a tweet were “still vibrant despite the shrinking space for independent voices in Russia.”
Pro-democracy activists said the Kremlin was swift to market Borrell’s visit for propaganda purposes and to discredit Navalny. During Friday’s press conference, Borrell also praised Russia’s development of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.
“I take the floor just to congratulate Russia on this success,” Borrell said of the vaccine, which doesn’t yet have Europe’s scientific approval. “It’s good news for the whole of mankind.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a video shortly afterward, which begins with a clip of Navalny last year criticizing Russian authorities for prematurely authorizing Sputnik V, ahead of full testing, with the footage then cutting to Borrell praising Russia for developing Sputnik V.