The controversial visit to Moscow this Friday by the head of community diplomacy, Josep Borrell, is part of the umpteenth attempt by Brussels to turn the page on the conflict with Moscow caused in 2014 by the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. Borrell’s tense meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov comes amidst the crackdown on citizens protesting in Russian cities over the arrest of opponent Alexei Navalni. Despite everything, the main European capitals consider it difficult, but essential, to seek an understanding with the Vladimir Putin regime.
The 27 partners of the Union plan to analyze in depth their relations with Moscow at the European summit in March. And Berlin and Paris are pushing decisively towards the search for a coexistence with the Russian president that stops the deterioration of the bilateral relationship and recovers the coexistence lost for six years. “Governments have to clarify at once what relationship we want to have with Russia and stop hiding behind the Commission,” says Antonio López Istúriz MEP, secretary general of the European People’s Party.
“I don’t share the theory that when things go wrong, you don’t have to talk; on the contrary, at that moment is when dialogue is most needed, ”Borrell pointed out last week when announcing his visit to Moscow, the first by a head of community diplomacy since 2017. Borrell’s opening to dialogue with the Putin regime It comes after similar attempts by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and, above all, by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, the European leader who enjoys a more fluid relationship with the Russian president that has remained even in the moments of greatest tension with the Kremlin.
Berlin, but also Paris or Madrid, consider it inevitable to maintain close contact with Moscow for geographical, economic, cultural and historical reasons. “Russia will always be there,” says a diplomatic source, alluding to the proximity of a country whose capital is just over 1,000 kilometers from the EU border and with its cultural capital, Saint Petersburg, less than 200 kilometers.
Unlike Washington, which sees Russia as a distant rival and heir to the old cold war enemy, Brussels has to grapple with an uncomfortable neighbor who is also joined by powerful energy ties. 30% of the EU’s oil imports come from Russia, according to data from the European Commission. In the case of natural gas, the figure rises to 42%. A very important volume for a European Union with a foreign energy dependence in 2018 equivalent to 58% of its consumption, slightly higher than the year 2000, when Putin came to power.
Since the enlargement of the EU towards the former Soviet bloc in 2004, Moscow has not hesitated to use energy as part of its political armament. And the calls gas wars in 2006 and 2009 they underscored their power when Gazprom shut down part of the gas pipelines in the dead of winter, leaving much of central and eastern Europe shivering.
NATO incorporated energy security among its main policies in 2010. And two years later he opened a specialized center on the matter in Lithuania, one of the European partners that feels most threatened by the Kremlin. But the concern of the US and other Atlantic allies over energy dependence on the EU has been olympically ignored by Germany.
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, first, and Merkel, later, have promoted the construction of two gas pipelines through the Baltic (Nord Stream I and II) that, according to Washington, will strengthen Gazprom’s dominance over the German and European energy market. Berlin, on the other hand, insists that they are vital to guarantee its supply and not even the war in Ukraine or the chemical attacks on European soil attributed to the Kremlin have so far changed Merkel’s opinion.
Emmanuel Macron’s France has also been trying since 2017 to reorient relations with Moscow that allows a more peaceful coexistence than in recent years. France places Russia within a European neighborhood, next to the Maghreb or the Middle East, in which – according to Macron a few months ago in an interview – “it is not sustainable that our international policy is in tow [de la estadounidense]”.
The Libyan and Syrian Hornets
Achieving an entente with Putin would help cushion the clashes in the hornets’ nests where France and Russia often collide, from Libya to Syria. But it would also reassure European partners who resist the EU’s strategic autonomy promoted by Macron and which Poland or the Baltics interpret as a dangerous severing of ties with Washington and a risk of being at the mercy of Moscow.
Borrell has transferred to Moscow the offer of dialogue that Berlin and Paris advocate. “Our communication channels must remain open,” said the High Representative in a rostrum on his visit to Russia published on Sunday in a French newspaper. And he recalled that, in addition to historical and geographical ties, “the EU is Russia’s main trading partner and its first source of foreign investment.”
But Borrell represents a deeply divided European Union on the way forward. The path of dialogue runs into the heavy hand demanded by Poland and the Baltic countries. And Moscow’s attitude does not help to strengthen the fragile bridges of understanding either. Every tepid approach by the EU is frustrated by some outrage attributed to the Putin regime, which Brussels accuses of having committed chemical weapons attacks on European soil and of systematically violating human rights with increasing repression of opponents. Borrell himself has been greeted in Moscow with harsh words from Lavrov, who has not hesitated to accuse Europe of double standards on human rights. The Popular group in the European Parliament, the largest in the chamber, has criticized Borrell’s “complacency” with the Russian regime and has called for an immediate review of cooperation projects with Russia and an end to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. .