EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell paid a rare visit to Moscow on Friday and stood by as his host, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, called the EU an “unreliable partner” and accused European leaders of lying about Alexei Navalny’s poisoning.
Borrell insisted on making the trip, which he described as accepting a longstanding invitation from Lavrov, days after Russia drew international condemnation for jailing opposition leader Navalny, and said it was important to pursue dialogue. But while Borrell told EU foreign ministers that he did not want to be a “mailman” simply delivering messages, he did not identify any clear objective for his visit, apart from “putting aside negative rhetoric.”
The perils of a joint appearance with Lavrov quickly became apparent at a news conference Friday morning when Borrell was ambushed by the Russian government-controlled news agency Sputnik with a question about Cuba, in which he was baited into condemning the U.S. embargo on Havana. Adding a dash of trolling, the Sputnik journalist said the Cuba question was suggested by “American colleagues.” The same journalist also turned the tables on Borrell by asking a question about alleged human rights abuses in Latvia.
Borrell was clearly unprepared for the attack.
“About Cuba, I am a little bit surprised, I didn’t expect to talk about Cuba here in Moscow,” he said before gamely answering the question. “You know that the European Union rejects the U.S. embargo to Cuba and we continue to express this also vis-à-vis the new U.S. administration,” he said. “We expect the U.S. administration to review its position with respect to Cuba.”
Lavrov quickly pounced. He seized the opportunity both to highlight a glaring disagreement between Brussels and Washington but also to deliver a sharp attack on sanctions policy and to accuse the EU of hypocrisy in pursuing multilateralism as a cover for Western exceptionalism. At several other points in the news conference, Lavrov denounced the EU’s sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea, calling them “unilateral and illegitimate restrictions … imposed under false pretenses.”
“As for the question to me — how do we assess the EU policy toward Cuba,” Lavrov said. “I see here no surprise, Josep, because when I visit different countries, they often ask me about Ukraine and now they asked you about Cuba, because you have quite important and intense relations with Cuba and I think it’s quite a positive example that here we should use common sense, that we should avoid illegitimate, unilateral pressure [and] use embargoes, blockades.”
“Here we have converging views with the European Union,” Lavrov continued with his trademark deadpan delivery masking obvious self-satisfaction, “that we could only work with our partners through dialogue, without using any ultimatums, punishments and unilateral actions punishing those who want to develop normal relations by imposing extraterritorial restrictions — those are methods and tools from the colonial past. I should say that the European Union starts using these instruments that were invented by the United States, which is a bad thing.”
Lavrov added that he hoped these issues would be addressed at a summit of the leaders of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, an idea proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Lavrov noted has been endorsed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
“At this event, it would be important to understand, to sort out what world are we trying to build, a multipolar world that will truly ensure equality of all key actors, including the European Union, or a multipolar, multilateral world by name only,” Lavrov said.
Borrell said he had conveyed the EU’s unhappiness about the jailing of Navalny. “I have conveyed to Minister Lavrov our deep concern and reiterated our appeal for his release and the launch of an impartial investigation of his poisoning,” he said.
But his remarks were overshadowed by Lavrov’s forceful rebuke, in which he repeated his doubts about the West’s conclusion that Navalny was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent — a conclusion that German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally announced in Berlin, where Navalny was treated. Laboratories in France and Sweden, as well as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, confirmed the German findings.
Overall, it was a disastrous performance by Borrell, who acknowledged that the EU had not taken any step toward imposing new sanctions on Russia over the Navalny case. Borrell, a former foreign minister of Spain, then stood by silently and semi-smiling as Lavrov took the last word to slam the EU as “unreliable” and to say he hoped EU heads of state and government use a planned discussion about Russia at their March European Council summit to adopt a new path.
“We are getting used to the fact that the European Union are trying to impose unilateral restrictions, illegitimate restrictions and we proceed from the assumption at this stage that the European Union is an unreliable partner,” Lavrov said. “I hope that the strategic review that will take place soon will focus on the key interests of the European Union and that these talks will help to make our contacts more constructive.”
Adding an exclamation point to Borrell’s troubled visit, Russia expelled three EU diplomats — from Germany, Poland and Sweden — for attending demonstrations in support of Navalny, an EU diplomat said.
Within minutes of the end of the news conference, the European Commission faced a barrage of questions about Borrell’s trip at its daily news conference, but the spokesperson’s service offered little clarity and instead repeated Borrell’s insistence that he wanted to foster dialogue with Moscow, while also reiterating the EU position calling for Navalny’s release.
Elsewhere in Brussels, diplomats expressed dismay. “As expected, Lavrov outplayed Borrell,” a senior EU diplomat said. “Speaking in football terms, Lavrov was scoring goal after goal … and Borrell was missing them all. No defense and no attack.”
A second EU diplomat said: “The presser showed his lack of experience,” adding that Borrell “was unprepared for many questions. Unfortunately, Lavrov played it by his own rules.”