EU’s Borrell on Russia: Prepare for relations to get worse

But foreign policy chief's plan to tackle Moscow gets chilly response from diplomats.

EU’s Borrell on Russia: Prepare for relations to get worse

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday warned that Europe’s relationship with Russia is only going to get worse.

Yet his proposal for what to do about it received a notably cold reception from EU diplomats.

Speaking in Brussels on the day that U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, held a summit in Geneva, Borrell said the EU “needs to be realistic and prepare for a further downturn of our relations with Russia” — which have already reached their lowest level since the end of the Cold War.

For Borrell, the prediction was a new, starker, message on the EU-Russia dynamic. And the EU high representative for foreign and security policy placed the blame squarely on Moscow.

“The deliberate policy choices of the Russian government over the last years have created a negative spiral in our relations,” Borrell told reporters. “This further downturn is the most likely outlook for the time being,”

Given “the present circumstances,” he added, a renewed partnership with Russia — which would allow both sides to cooperate more closely on political, economic or energy issues — “is a distant prospect.”

Borrell’s remarks came at a press conference held to unveil a report outlining a new EU approach toward its biggest neighboring country. The three main elements: “Push back, constrain and engage.”

Borrell said the EU must “push back against human rights violations, breaches of international law in our member states and in our neighborhood and continue to speak up for democratic values.” It must also “constrain Russia’s attempts to undermine” EU interests through means like cyber warfare and disinformation.

Conversely, he said, Brussels should remain engaged with Russia on issues like the pandemic and climate change, as well as coordination on regional conflicts in the Middle East. And he urged a strengthening of ties with Russian civil society and human rights groups.

Yet while EU countries all have concerns about Moscow’s behavior, many had the feeling that Borrell’s new report wasn’t the way to address it.

During a presentation to EU ambassadors earlier on Wednesday, Borrell’s proposals got a rather cold reception, according to numerous diplomats.

Two senior diplomats said the main doubts raised were that the report is not operational, drawing conclusions that are too general. Several diplomats said that many Eastern European countries expressed criticism, fearing the report was too soft on Russia. But diplomats from other regions also said they had doubts about the plan.

The report — prepared by the European Commission and the EU’s diplomatic body, the European External Action Service — proposes numerous initiatives to push back on Russia.

It suggests amping up measures to combat corruption and money laundering “including through increased transparency on financial flows concerning Russia” — a line aimed at Russian oligarchs.

Another section suggests creating new tools and retaliatory measures to prevent Russia from punishing European companies operating in Russia. A senior EU official said a more concrete proposal on this will be fleshed out closer to autumn.

The report also doesn’t rule out new sanctions on Russia, whether through expanding existing penalties or imposing new ones.

On energy, the report notably urges a reduction in dependence on Russia for oil and gas — a top-of-mind issue as the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline nears completion. The document suggests making Europe “gradually less dependent on foreign supplies and the geopolitics of energy.”

EU leaders requested the report ahead of a discussion they will have on Russia later this month. Diplomats said they’d had little time to read the report ahead of its release on Wednesday, but many predicted EU leaders will push to make it more specific and to include more explicit actions the bloc can take.