EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell travels to Moscow on Thursday under pressure to confront the Kremlin over the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and violence against protesters.
The visit – the first in Russia by an EU top envoy since 2017 – has drawn criticism from some European capitals, who are worried that Moscow will show it as proof Brussels is keen to return to normal.
But Borrell insists he will deliver “clear messages” to the Kremlin despite covering Western talks to free President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic opponent, Navalny, who on Tuesday received a nearly three-year prison sentence.
“It is when things are not going well that you have to get involved,” the former Spanish foreign minister said on Monday.
The EU’s ties with Russia have been in shambles since Moscow took Crimea and began waging war in Ukraine in 2014 – and there are concerns about its involvement in Belarus, Syria, Libya, Central Africa and the Caucasus.
Borrell is keen to bring out his veteran counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the chances of co-operation on issues, including using Russia’s help to revive Iran’s nuclear deal and tackle climate change.
But it will be the prison in Navalny and the detention of thousands of protesters across Russia by relay-bearing security forces that dominate his visit.
Nonsense, says the Kremlin
The EU’s foreign policy chief is not under any illusion that he can pressure Moscow to liberate Navalny – and the Kremlin has already warned him against it.
“We hope that such nonsense as linking the prospects for relations between Russia and the EU with the residents of a detention center will not happen,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Moscow is “ready to do anything” to develop ties with Brussels, but the Kremlin is “not ready to listen to advice” on the issue of Navalny, he said.
Authorities have poured cold water on attempts to create a meeting with Putin’s nemesis, and Borrell will be content with talks with civil society representatives.
Back in Europe, calls are growing from some countries for the EU to collect sanctions it imposed on six Russian officials in October because of the nerve poisoning that led Navalny to fight for his life in Germany.
EU foreign ministers last week agreed to review the issue if he was not released.
“After this decision, it will now also be shared between EU partners. Additional sanctions can not be ruled out, says German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert.
According to an EU statement, the foreign ministers would discuss “possible further measures” at a meeting on 22 February.
Navalny himself called on the European Parliament last year – two months before his fateful return to Moscow – to impose sanctions on the oligarchs and the money he accuses of protecting Putin’s wealth.
But European diplomats say all measures, if they come, would probably only target officials and officials directly involved in the crisis.
Germany has also been urged to stop the much-discussed Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to bring Russian gas to Europe.
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The Continental power plant Berlin has rejected the claim and Borrell insists that Brussels has no power to make Germany enough.
“I do not think that is the way to solve the problem of Navalny,” Borrell said.
“The Russians will not change course because we tell them we will stop Nord Stream.”
For Moscow, the visit seems to be used as an opportunity to both reject its own questions and show that the West still wants to talk about it regardless.
‘Not a sign of weakness’
“On the one hand, the Kremlin is keen to portray the EU as a weak player with many internal problems,” said Susan Stewart of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“On the other hand, despite official rhetoric, the Kremlin is still keen to show that Western actors are interested in cooperating with Russia, as this increases its status and legitimacy.”
But with European leaders debating their overall stance on Russia at upcoming summits in the coming months, diplomats in Brussels insisted it was the right time to visit Moscow.
“There is reason to go there to pass on messages,” said a European envoy.
“This mission is not a sign of weakness.”