An old British proverb says “curiosity killed the cat” and Josep Borrell was recklessly curious on February 5 when he visited Moscow in order to “discuss the challenges” the EU and Russia are facing (including issues where their views “diverge”) and to “listen to each other’s concerns”. Well, the EU’s high representative did hear Russia’s “concerns” which were presented in a very blunt and almost offensive way. The head of the European Union’s “common” [sic] foreign policy was humiliated by his Russian counterpart in front of a global audience as the joint press conference was broadcasted globally via satellite and the EU’s own EbS broadcasting network.
However, the writing was on the wall all along. The European Union may be by far Russia’s biggest commercial partner, but at the same time it is considered by Russia’s elite both as a geopolitical adversary and a major security threat. Ever since the war in Georgia in 2008, Moscow has grown weary of the EU’s attempts to grow its influence in former Soviet republics, as it considers Europe’s long-term strategy as an assault right in Russia’s backyard and a breach of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. The EU’s policy towards Ukraine in particular is seen by Russia as an act of aggression, as Moscow considers Ukraine part of its security structure.
While most leaders, politicians and foreign policy experts in the west view eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics through an “end of history” geopolitics lens, Russia is stubbornly committed to the post-WWII structure and the legacy of the 1944 “Percentages Agreement ”. I had a very interesting informal discussion with a retired Russian diplomat in 2019, just a few months after Greece had settled a decades-long dispute with what is now North Macedonia. Russia had tried in many ways to undermine the negotiations and block Skopje’s path towards the EU. I almost naively asked the Russian diplomat, “Why did you do that?”. The answer I got was quite striking to me. “Mr Koutsomitis, in 1944 we agreed with the British and the Americans that our influence in Yugoslavia should be split 50/50. The EU has already absorbed Slovenia and Croatia, it is about to swallow Montenegro, and is negotiating an accession process with Serbia. Macedonia [sic] is part of our 50 per cent”. This all may sound quite trivial in 2021, but the Russian way of thinking regarding the equilibrium of power in Europe is still guided by the Cold War mentality.
Another destabilising factor in EU-Russia relations is Vladimir Putin’s perception that the US (excluding Trump) and the majority of the EU member states are all gunning for a regime change in Russia. According to several people with knowledge of the Russian leader’s beliefs, the watershed moment was back in 2011 during the “White Ribbon” protests in Russia that threatened to overthrow the regime. Putin concluded that most of the protests were orchestrated by US and European intelligence agencies aiming to topple his government and replace it with a puppet regime that would accommodate western interests and “contain” Russia’s influence in the world. This has been Vladimir Putin’s mantra ever since. The Russian leader used the exact same arguments during an interview with Russian journalists on Sunday when he blamed western powers for the pro-Navalny protests in several Russian cities.
Russia’s political and economic leaders are also very much aware that their country’s long-term prospects are bleak, as its ability to maintain global power status is based on oil, gas and minerals’ exports and will diminish over time. Europe’s energy dependence on Russia will lessen in the next decades and the country’s elite know quite well that time is not on their side. Russia will not be able to maintain superpower status through its vast nuclear arsenal alone, it needs to be an economic powerhouse as well.
Josep Borrell should have known that it is practically impossible to seek better relations with Russia or to reach a basic understanding with Putin while attacking him by referring to Alexei Navalny’s treatment by the Russian authorities. The Russian leader considers Navalny to be a major threat to his rule and to the survival of the Kremlin-Russian oligarchy nexus. Sergey Lavrov went as far as threatening a complete break-up of relations with the EU over Navalny, though the Kremlin later backtracked on this threat.
European leaders are scheduled to have a thorough discussion of EU-Russia relations at the European Council on March 25, and they need to make some tough choices. The European Union has two options: it can either uphold its principles of fighting for human rights and democracy around the world and continue with its plans for enlargement, thus going fully against Putin, or it can turn a blind eye to Russia’s numerous human rights violations, the suppression of opposition activists and the use of unconventional weapons to neutralise opponents. There is no workaround for this dilemma as Mr Borrell painfully witnessed in Moscow.