EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell came under scathing criticism Saturday for his visit to Moscow, which several of the bloc’s member states had urged him to cancel, fearing the Kremlin would manipulate the three-day trip to its advantage.
His critics, including former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, along with Western diplomats, say their worst fears were realized during Borrell's Friday joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Just moments before the press conference, Kremlin officials announced their decision to expel three EU diplomats — from Germany, Poland and Sweden — for allegedly taking part in the unsanctioned Jan. 23 rallies in support of Alexey Navalny, an announcement possibly timed to humiliate Borrell.
Borrell, who went to Moscow on his own initiative in the first high-level EU trip of its type in four years, is now being roundly criticized.
"The press conference after their talks on Friday was a lesson in hubris and failure," wrote Christian Trippe, head of Deutsche Welle's Eastern Europe service, on Saturday. "At times, Borrell came across as a cornered, ill-prepared schoolboy. Lavrov is notorious for not giving his negotiating partners an inch, but this time he even managed to rob Borrell of his political dignity.”
Before Friday's press conference Borrell, a former Spanish foreign minister, warned his Russian counterparts that Navalny's treatment has brought EU-Russian relations to a “low point,” and he reiterated EU demands for Navalny’s release.
That message was undercut, however, when Borrell told Lavrov that no EU member state had proposed extra sanctions on Russia for now, which other EU officials say is inaccurate.
Borrell’s visit, which was planned before Navalny demonstrations erupted in more than 100 cities and towns across Russia, has divided EU member states. Some lobbied Brussels to cancel the trip, fearing it was badly timed and would expose EU impotence.
The Baltic states, alongside Poland and Romania, called instead for a new set of sanctions on Russia. Their fear was that a dialogue with the Kremlin over the Navalny case at this stage would be a hopeless endeavor that would undermine EU credibility.
Others like Germany and France, appeared to support direct diplomatic engagement, seeing it as a chance for Borrell to express EU support for human rights.
EU foreign ministers had voted Jan. 25 to hold off on any new sanctions over Navalny's arrest despite adopting a tougher policy regime in early December.
"Borrell should also make it clear that he and the EU view the attacks on Navalny and the vicious crackdown on public protests as the tip of the iceberg of Russia’s deliberate and persistent efforts to silence democratic voices with increasingly restrictive laws and politically motivated prosecutions," wrote Philippe Dam, the EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, on Wednesday.
Navalny was detained upon his January return to Moscow for parole violations, which his supporters say is a spurious charge, after recovering in Germany from a near-fatal poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.
His arrest has triggered the largest anti-Kremlin protests seen in Russia since 2011, and more than 10,000 of his supporters have been detained by police amid allegations of police brutality, according to rights monitors.
Time to resign?
Borrell is also drawing fire for standing silently as Lavrov dubbed the EU an “unreliable partner” and accused European leaders of lying about Navalny, dismissing the West’s conclusion — confirmed by laboratories in Germany, France and Sweden, along with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — that Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent.
"This is simply appalling," tweeted Verhofstadt, who slammed Borrell for being ill-prepared. "Not just that Russia makes a fool of the EU but that we let it happen.”
Borrell “should simply not have gone to Moscow without a message of EU strength & a mandate for sanctions to back it up,” Verhofstadt tweeted.
Borrell was also criticized for failing to protest more forcefully the Kremlin’s last-minute decision to expel the trio of EU diplomats.
“Borrell has to think about resigning,” tweeted EU lawmaker Rasa Juknevičienė, a former Lithuanian defense minister, condemning the overall tenor of Borrell's message that the EU and Russia “can cooperate despite misunderstandings.”
The European Commission's spokespeople offered few specifics when inundated with questions about the visit at their Friday press conference, largely defending Borrell’s effort to foster dialogue with Moscow while repeating EU support for Navalny’s release.
U.S. officials have not publicly criticized the EU diplomat, but some privately told VOA they had serious misgivings before he left for Moscow and believe he has been maneuvered by the Kremlin into a highly choreographed trap.
Former Western diplomats have not been charitable, joining Saturday's chorus of disapproval.
“Borrell disgraced himself today with his clumsy visit to Moscow,” tweeted former British diplomat David Clark. “The EU talks about achieving ‘strategic autonomy’ but it first needs to achieve strategic maturity," Clark added. "It remains hopelessly weak and naive in its dealings with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
"EU&RUS are as far apart as ever," tweeted Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. "EU sanctions aren’t working, its criticisms are now rebuffed ... space exists only for transactional, interest-based relations. Needed: fundamental reassessment."
While Navalny supporters expressed frustration with Borrell, he did meet with representatives from civil society, which he said in a tweet was "still vibrant despite the shrinking space for independent voices in Russia."
Borrell also said his requests to meet with Navalny were rejected, although European diplomats were in contact with Navalny's lawyers throughout the trip.
Pro-democracy activists say the Kremlin was swift to market Borrell’s visit for propaganda purposes and to discredit Navalny. During Friday’s press conference, Borrell also praised Russia’s development of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine.
"I take the floor just to congratulate Russia on this success," Borrell said of the vaccine, which doesn't yet have Europe's scientific approval. "It's good news for the whole of mankind."
Russia’s foreign ministry released a video shortly after, which begins with a clip of Navalny last year criticizing Russia authorities for prematurely authorizing Sputnik V, ahead of full testing, with the footage then cutting to Borrell praising Russia for developing Sputnik V.
Borrell defended his controversial visit once again early Saturday.
"Diplomatic channels must remain open, not only to defuse crises or incidents, but also to have direct exchanges, deliver firm and frank messages, especially when relations are far from satisfactory," he said in a prepared statement.
EU officials released a statement saying foreign ministers would discuss "possible further action" on Russia when they meet again in Brussels on Feb. 22.