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EU-Russia Relationship Hits New Low Over Moscow’s Treatment of Navalny

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a more cordial earlier meeting. (Photo by Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a more cordial earlier meeting. (Photo by Vladimir Simicek/AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow ( – Tensions between Russia and the European Union boiled over this week, with both sides expelling diplomats and Brussels warning that it plans to implement new sanctions against Moscow over its treatment of anti-Putin campaigner Alexei Navalny.

A visit to Moscow late last week by E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell turned sour when at a joint press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the E.U. as “an unreliable partner” and blamed it for deteriorating relations between the two sides.

Borrell had visited in a bid to push the Kremlin to free Navalny, who was arrested last month while trying to return to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from a poisoning attack.

The controversy continued after the press conference: Hours later, Russia expelled a diplomat each from Germany, Poland, and Sweden for allegedly taking part in pro-Navalny protests. Borrell learned about the expulsions on Twitter while still in Moscow.

Germany, Poland, and Sweden responded Monday by announcing they will each expel one Russian diplomat.

Upon returning to Brussels, Borrell found himself under growing pressure from lawmakers who said his trip enabled the Kremlin to embarrass the E.U. As of Thursday, 81 lawmakers in the European Parliament have signed a letter demanding his resignation.

In an attempt to placate the critics, Borrell promised this week to introduce new sanctions against Russia on February 22, when foreign ministers from the 27 E.U. states are due to meet in Brussels.

“One thing became clear: There is no intention on the Russian side to engage in a constructive discussion if we address human rights and political freedom,” he said.

Lavrov fired back at those comments, telling reporters the E.U.’s criticism of Russia’s human rights record was aimed at turning it into an “obedient” country.

“Any attempts by Russia to become independent, to defend its right to an independent foreign policy, to defend international law are encountering increasingly fierce resistance from those of our Western colleagues who want to make us obedient,” he said. “They want to force us to agree with those very dubious interpretations of universal human values that they themselves profess and that contradict the Russian cultural tradition, our civilizational traditions.”

Relations have grown increasingly strained since the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, which saw pro-Western protestors topple the country’s Russia-friendly president. Moscow subsequently annexed Crimea and began arming pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. In turn, the E.U. joined the United States in imposing against Russia, which was also ejected from what was the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations.

The relationship deteriorated further last August when Navalny fell into a coma while on an internal flight to Moscow. He was then airlifted to Germany, where he spent five months recovering from what Western scientists say was a poisoning by Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. The Kremlin has denied his accusations that the security services organized the attack.

Many European governments have also blamed Russian security services for the poisoning, and expressed solidarity for pro-Navalny demonstrations held across Russia last month.

Some influential Russian experts have argued that the Navalny affair represents a breaking point in the E.U.-Russian relationship.

Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a research group that advises the Russian government, said the fallout over Navalny’s poisoning exposed “a huge divide between Moscow and Brussels that cannot be bridged by conventional diplomacy.”

“There is no common framework for interaction, even though [Russia and the EU] are competitors or even antagonists,” he wrote in an op-ed for state-run news agency RT. “What we see is a total mismatch in the way both parties act, judge and understand ethics.”

Even as tensions between Moscow and Brussels rise, however, the two sides still retain important economic links.

Russia is expected to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany later this year. Nord Stream 2 is projected to double Russian natural gas exports to Germany and would allow Moscow to bypass Ukraine in delivering its gas to Europe. The pipeline is opposed by the U.S. and several Eastern European countries, who fear that it will increase Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.

Germany has repeatedly stood by the project, insisting that its energy cooperation with Russia is a separate issue from its criticism of Moscow’s human rights record.

Beyond the energy trade, Russia has emerged as a potential coronavirus vaccine supplier for the E.U. In recent weeks, several European governments have expressed interest in acquiring Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine after a British scientific journal found that it had 91.6 percent effectiveness rate.