The EU’s top diplomat says Russia is binding at a “low point” over the prison in Navalny

The European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said during a visit to Moscow on Friday that the bloc’s ties with Russia were under “serious strain” after Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was arrested and detained.

“Our relationship is really in a difficult moment,” Borrell said at the beginning of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, adding that “our relations are really strained and the Navalny case is a low point.”

His visit – the first to Russia by a top EU envoy since 2017 – has drawn criticism from some European capitals, who are worried that Moscow will do so as proof that Brussels is keen to return to normal.

But Borrell has insisted he will deliver “clear messages” to the Kremlin despite empty Western talks to free President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic opponent, who was jailed for almost three years on Tuesday.

“It is when things are not going well that you have to get involved,” the former Spanish foreign minister said ahead of his trip.

In comments to Borrell at the beginning of Friday’s talks, Lavrov said that Russia was “ready to answer all questions”.

“The biggest problem is the lack of normality in relations between Russia and the EU, the two largest players in Europe,” the Russian foreign minister said. “It benefits no one.”

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 forward his veteran counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the opportunities for 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.

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 this week.

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.

Nord Stream pipeline

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.

“Following this decision, there will now also be talks 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.

>> Focus: The Cold War is coming to Germany’s Sassnitz, the center of the Nord Stream 2 project

The continental power plant Berlin has rejected the claim and Borrell insists that Brussels has no power to get Germany to make contact.

“I do not think that is the way to solve the problem of Navalny,” Borrell said before his trip.

“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.

“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,” she told AFP.

( Jowharwith AFP)