EU-Russia relations expected to get even worse, says bloc’s top diplomat

·3 min read

The EU should prepare for “a further downturn” in its relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the bloc’s top diplomat has warned.

As Joe Biden and Putin talked at a lakeside mansion in Geneva, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, unveiled a strategy aimed at charting a course for EU-Russia relations. Ties between the two sides have hit a post-cold war low following Kremlin-orchestrated cyber-attacks and election interference, the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the poisoning and jailing of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

“We believe that a renewed partnership allowing us to realise the full potential of a close cooperation with Russia is a distant prospect,” Borrell told reporters. “The EU therefore needs to be realistic and prepare for a further downturn of our relations with Russia, which are right now at the lowest level. And this further downturn is the most likely outlook for the time being.”

While Brussels has faced calls to tighten sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, Borrell said he hoped to avoid further restrictive measures, because it would signal a continuing deterioration of relations. “I would try to do my best in order to avoid it, showing at the same time the necessary strength to push back and constrain and the will to engage when necessary.”

In general, he added, the EU was “quite reluctant” to use economic sanctions because “they affect ordinary people who are not responsible” for the actions of their governments.

Aides to Navalny have urged western countries to extend sanctions to more Kremlin-linked businesses and officials, after the EU and US this year targeted a narrower group of people with travel bans and asset freezes in response to the poisoning and jailing of the opposition leader.

Some EU leaders sound sceptical about further measures, notably France’s Emmanuel Macron who has said the policy of “progressive sanctions” against Russia isn’t effective.

The paper attempts to steer a course between calling out the Russian government over human rights violations and breaches of international law, while seeking to work with Moscow on issues including global heating and environmental problems along a shared 2,000km border.

The EU hopes to intensify outreach to Russian citizens, by waiving visa fees for students, young people and scientific researchers, as well as increasing support for independent Russian language media, a sector under intense pressure from a Kremlin crackdown.

EU officials have also pledged to limit resources available to the Russian government to “carry out its disruptive foreign policy”, as well as further action against money laundering and corruption, but details remain scarce.

Borrell came under fire this year, after he was widely seen to have been humiliated at a press conference in Moscow with Russia’s veteran foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. The EU diplomat said he knew that Russia preferred to deal with “some member states” rather than the EU institutions in Brussels. “I know because I have been told directly that Russia is not interested in engaging with the EU and they prefer to go to member states, some member states.”

EU leaders will debate the union’s stance towards their eastern neighbour at a Brussels summit next week, where the paper could expose traditional divisions. While the 27 countries have consistently agreed to extend sanctions – imposed following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 – on the Russian government, Poland and the Baltic states tend to take a strike a more hawkish tone, while France and Italy have often sounded more conciliatory.

The US president heard the EU’s concerns at a summit in Brussels on Tuesday, ahead of his meeting with Putin. “The EU-Russia relationship is on a negative spiral and this is also what we conveyed very clearly to President Biden,” said the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

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