Anger in EU over top diplomat’s trip to Moscow could ease alignment between Brussels and Biden administration

By Laurence Norman in Brussels and Thomas Grove in Moscow

Feb. 8, 2021

The Wall Street Journal


The European Union’s latest clash with Russia has presented an opportunity for the U.S. to advocate a joint position on Moscow, as officials on both sides of the Atlantic consider how to hold the Kremlin accountable for the treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.


EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell visited Moscow last week, the latest move in a push to bolster ties with Russia, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, that has prompted anxiety among some member states that border Russia.


But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used a joint press conference to scold Mr. Borrell for criticizing Mr. Navalny’s sentencing. Hours later, Mr. Borrell learned during a meeting with Mr. Lavrov that Moscow was expelling three European diplomats. Mr. Borrell on Sunday wrote in his blog that “Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat.” He said the bloc could impose sanctions over Mr. Navalny’s jailing.


Moscow over recent years has sought to divide the U.S. and the EU, its biggest trading partner, exploiting wariness in some EU capitals about economic sanctions imposed on Moscow after Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine.


But last week’s developments have given an opportunity to the Biden administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington wanted to coordinate closely with its European allies over Moscow’s handling of Mr. Navalny, who last week was sentenced to 3½ years in prison, effectively sidelining him from growing protest against the rule of President Vladimir Putin.


“Russia has long had an illusion that it can deal with individual capitals constructively but that Brussels is the unreliable actor here,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a government-sanctioned think tank. “Looking at it from Washington’s perspective and its desire to boost the trans-Atlantic partnership, the trip went quite well.”


Russia has long taken a two-pronged approach to Europe, expressing disdain for the EU while courting member countries directly. Still, it has bristled at the close ties the EU has built in the region, which have pulled some of Russia’s neighbors toward a Western democratic model.


Russian officials publicly emphasize the need for business ties with the continent, a note that Mr. Lavrov struck repeatedly with Mr. Borrell. Economic, energy and investment ties have strengthened recently despite EU sanctions. Politically, Russia has attacked the bloc, often calling it a vassal of Washington.

“We are used to Brussels increasingly resorting to unilateral measures without any legitimate basis and we move forward on the assumption that the EU is an unreliable partner,” Mr. Lavrov said Friday alongside Mr. Borrell.

Mr. Borrell had pushed for the Moscow visit, sharing the view in Paris that greater engagement with the bloc’s largest neighbor was crucial in Europe’s attempt to carve out greater geopolitical autonomy.

Mr. Borrell wanted to test Moscow’s interest in adding new topics for cooperation—potentially including science and research, Arctic policy, climate talks and tackling the coronavirus pandemic—ahead of a discussion on EU-Russia ties among the bloc’s leaders next month.

Mr. Lavrov responded by refusing to facilitate Mr. Borrell’s request for a meeting with Mr. Navalny and, during the press conference, attacking the EU. He took a personal dig at Mr. Borrell, a fierce opponent of Catalan independence, by citing the jailing of Catalan leaders as an example of EU human-rights abuses.

Later Friday, as three hours of talks with Mr. Lavrov were ending, Mr. Borrell learned from social media that Russia planned to expel diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany for allegedly attending pro-Navalny rallies. The EU governments said the diplomats were just observing the protests. Mr. Borrell asked Mr. Lavrov to reconsider. He refused.

“My meeting with Minister Lavrov and the messages sent by Russian authorities during this visit confirmed that Europe and Russia are drifting apart,” Mr. Borrell said. He said next steps, which must be decided by EU countries, could include sanctions.

EU foreign ministers are set to meet Feb. 22 to discuss Mr. Navalny’s jailing. Some EU diplomats already had suggested that EU use its new human-rights sanctions regime to punish Russian officials involved. Mr. Borrell confirmed Sunday that was an option.

On Monday, Sweden, Germany and Poland said they were each kicking out a Russian diplomat in response to Moscow’s move on Friday.

European diplomats say they don’t expect Mr. Borrell’s trip to end differences inside the EU over Russia. Mr. Macron’s outreach to Moscow is likely to continue, as is Germany’s commitment to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia, despite criticism from other EU capitals and the U.S.

Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister, who was among those who warned Mr. Borrell not to visit Moscow, said Russia would pay a price for its response to the EU.

“There is no interest to engage in a meaningful way and that is something that we should all understand,” he said. “Of course that doesn’t mean we don’t speak at all with Russia. But it means we have to be much more strategic, much better prepared when we do so.”

Write to Laurence Norman at and Thomas Grove at