EU’s Borrell says Russia is on a ‘worrisome authoritarian route’

Jonathan Stearns
Bloomberg
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European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell defended his trip to Moscow last week after Russia jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, saying the visit clarified Russian hostility toward the EU and will help it calibrate ties to the country.

Borrell told the European Parliament on Tuesday in Brussels that “the Russian government is going down a worrisome authoritarian route.” He said the EU must be prepared to act more firmly with Moscow, including possibly through more sanctions.

“This visit presented obvious risk,” Borrell said during a debate in the 27-nation EU assembly. “It allowed me to assess first-hand the challenges of engaging with Russia. I had no illusion before the visit; I am even more worried after.”

European High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell, holds a virtual news conference in this March 31, 2020, file photo.

The EU faces an internal struggle over the approach toward an increasingly assertive Russia under President Vladimir Putin, with Germany urging prudence on any punitive steps and eastern member states taking a harder line. The bloc’s leaders are due to evaluate ties with Russia next month.

A key question is whether the controversy over Navalny, whose imprisonment follows his recovery from a near-fatal poisoning in Russia last year, will prompt the EU to trigger a new tool for blacklisting foreign officials over human-rights violations.

“It will be for the member states to decide the next step,” Borrell said. “But yes, this could include sanctions.”

The bloc has maintained a slew of sanctions, including targeted economic penalties, against Russia for the past seven years over its annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. And last October, the EU blacklisted six people and a state organization in Russia over the attempted murder of Navalny with a military-grade nerve agent two months earlier.

Borrell’s Feb. 4-6 visit to Moscow – the first by an EU foreign-policy chief since 2017 – was an attempt at a delicate diplomatic balancing act. It was meant to express the bloc’s outrage at the sentencing of Navalny and to keep the door open to deeper cooperation with Russia on regional and global challenges.

Once there, Borrell was forced onto the defensive after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a joint press conference for domestic propaganda purposes and Russia expelled diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden for their “recorded participation” in protests against the imprisonment of Navalny.

“Moscow abused the visit” by Borrell “to humiliate and offend the European Union,” said Kati Piri, a Dutch member of the EU Parliament. Dacian Ciolos, Romanian leader of the assembly’s pro-business Renew Europe group, was more critical of Borrell, telling him: “You fell into a media trap in Moscow.”

A Moscow court on Feb. 2 jailed Navalny for two years and eight months in a move that prompted European and U.S. condemnation. Navalny was detained in mid-January as he returned from Germany, where he recovered from the poisoning that he and the West have blamed on Russia’s security services. The Kremlin denies responsibility.

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