The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An E.U. diplomat went to Moscow to build bridges. It didn’t go well.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, and the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, leave a joint news conference in Moscow on Friday. (Russian Foreign Ministry/AP)

A top European Union official traveled to Moscow last week bearing an olive branch. But his experience proved so humiliating that it may have sown the seeds of U.S.-E.U. cooperation on a tougher Russia policy.

On Tuesday, E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he would propose new sanctions against the Kremlin.

He had wanted to “test if the Russian authorities are interested in a serious attempt to reverse the deterioration of our relations and seize the opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue,” Borrell told skeptical lawmakers at the European Parliament. “The answer has been clear. No. They are not.”

Borrell’s growing roster of critics say that was obvious even before he touched down in Moscow on Thursday, days after the country’s main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was sentenced to more than 2½ years in a penal colony because he failed to report to a probation officer after being attacked in Siberia with a deadly nerve agent. Some E.U. foreign ministers, especially those of former communist countries in Eastern Europe, warned Borrell against going.

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But the Spanish diplomat and E.U. high representative for foreign affairs said he wanted to test the efficacy of face-to-face contacts, joining a line of Western politicians who have attempted their own reboot of Russian relations, only to be disappointed.

Although his trip did not improve Europe’s ties with Russia, it may have aligned Brussels better with Washington at a time when President Biden is taking a new, harder line against the Kremlin after four years in which President Donald Trump often appeared hesitant to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin.

French President Emmanuel Macron has also pushed for more dialogue with Putin, worrying European Russia skeptics, who say that any normalization would only embolden a leader they say has assassinated his enemies, invaded neighboring nations and endangered the world during his 21 years in office.

Borrell’s reversal followed a bravura performance by his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has delighted in skewering opponents during his 17 years in office — sometimes without their realizing what is happening.

Lavrov appeared solicitous toward Borrell on Friday at the outset of a joint news conference, pausing to make sure the Spaniard was able to use his translation headset. Then he blasted the European Union as an “unreliable partner” and questioned its human rights record — while Borrell stood awkwardly to the side, a half-smile occasionally playing across his face.

When Borrell did get a chance to speak, he was baited by questions from pro-Kremlin media outlets into criticizing U.S. policy toward Cuba. He also said that Europe should authorize the Russian-made Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. A paper published last week in the Lancet showed 92 percent efficacy for the Russian-developed shot — but Russian leaders have also been eager to use it to gain political leverage.

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“A trip to Russia, given the background, given the tensions, sends a message,” said Dacian Ciolos, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, addressing Borrell. “You fell into a media trap in Moscow, one created by the Putin regime.”

The trip, which was capped by Russia’s expulsion of three E.U. diplomats over their alleged participation in protests about Navalny, was so disastrous it appears to have prompted Borrell to rethink his stance on sanctioning Russia for the activist’s poisoning and imprisonment. Asked at Friday’s news conference about the prospect of punitive E.U. measures, he said no. On Tuesday, there was a shift: He said he would propose measures that “could include sanctions.”

“Containment efforts should include combining robust action against disinformation, cyberattacks and other possible hybrid challenges,” he said.

But if Borrell feels newly skeptical about relations with Russia, he still repeatedly stumbled Tuesday over the pronunciation of Navalny’s name, referring to him as “Nalvany.”

Lavrov kept up his defiance this week, asking reporters Monday: “Who is drifting away from whom? After all, could it be that the E.U. itself is moving farther away from Russia, the Russian language and culture?”

In triggering a potentially tougher European response, Lavrov’s prickly strategy may have had an unintended effect. But some European diplomats said that good relations with Europe as a whole may not be the Kremlin’s goal.

“Most probably, Russia is not looking for any meaningful relations” with the bloc, focusing on cultivating individual European countries and exacerbating divisions, said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, who was among those who warned Borrell about the visit. “It will backfire, but then it is their choice.”

Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia. Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.

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