Conflict arises as Putin laughs at Borrell’s face

  • + Borrell lets the image of a strong and united Europe fall o Moscow.
  • + Putin shows that good relations with the EU is no longer a priority
  • + As a response to Putin, Borrell will push for more sanctions.
Source: Bloomberg

Why is there a conflict between Putin and Borrell?

Answer: Putin’s aggressiveness has thrown Borrell off balance in the latter’s visit to Moscow. 

On February 5th, Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, decided to go on an official visit to Moscow. The main objective of this trip was to test if the Russian government, but especially Putin, were willing to actually take action, retract from their behaviour and start to engage in human rights. 

Borrell’s petition was mainly focused on the Navalny case and his poisoning, which investigations confirmed was carried out by the FSB. However, this has only been the last straw on the turbulent relations between Russia and the EU. 

As Borrell himself confirmed, the final purpose of his visit to Moscow was to give the Russian government one last chance. Even though it was highly improbable that Putin would give in to any of Borrell’s demands, the latter was still thrown off balance by the aggressiveness of the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. In his interventions, Lavrov even alleged that Borrell and the EU are unreliable partners that made up false accusations on the Navalny case to incriminate Putin. 

If this wasn’t enough, during Borrell’s visit three European diplomats were expelled from Russian territory for allegedly attending demonstrations in support of Navalny. The expulsion of foreign diplomats is considered to be a huge step backwards in relations between nations. As High Representative of the EU states, Borrell has condemned these expulsions as according to him, are unjustified. Diplomats are within their rights to observe but should never participate in other country’s internal affairs. Borrell alongside with these diplomats’ states (Germany, Poland and Sweden) considers it highly improbable that they’ve failed to abide by the basic rule of diplomacy. 

Even though Borrell followed the unwritten laws of diplomacy and tried to stay away from unnecessary controversy, Putin sees all foreign interest in Russia’s internal affairs as a direct attack on him, his government and the nation. Therefore, he chose an unconventional strategy aimed at throwing his opponents off balance and making a fool out of them. 

Putin won’t let anyone question his actions. He is fighting for Russia’s hegemony in the international sphere and won’t let anyone interfere, even if that costs him his relations with the EU. 

What does Putin want?

Answer: Putin wants to prove Russia’s hegemony and power. Showing the EU that he has the upper hand.

When it comes to Russian politics, it is essential to understand that for the Russians, “a strong nation is essential because a weak one can lead to anarchy”. This is central in Putin’s political thought. In the same line, Putin is against “formal democracy, as his actions show, which obviously puts him against the European Union whose main pillar is this idea of democracy. 

Putin has been taunting the EU for years now, ever since the Crimean war in 2014. At this time, Russia’s attacks on Crimea and Ukraine were quite dangerous, as the country’s economy was stagnant and putting Russia’s relations with its main economic partner on the line was a risky move. However, the EU showed its hand by not coming to Ukraine’s rescue, and the sanctions imposed on Russia weren’t that damaging to the country’s economy. 

Since then, Putin has been playing with the EU and asserting his dominance over Western Europe. His dismissal of Borrell’s demands is another way of proving that he has the upper hand. 

In addition to this, Putin is taking advantage of the EU’s weakness when it comes to foreign policy. Borrell’s inability to respond to Lavrov’s attacks was partly due because there wasn’t a consensus about how to act against Russia and therefore, Borrell couldn’t pick a side. 

Basically, Putin was playing with Borrell on his visit to Moscow and sending a message to all the members. Putin is starting to look into Asia now and the EU is no longer in his plans as a strategic partner.

What does Borrell want?

Answer: Borrell wants to uphold the image of a strong EU Foreign Policy

Borrell defended his visit to Moscow by saying that it had accomplished his goal, establishing if Putin and his government were no longer interested in their relationship with the EU, which is the case. In face of the events, it seems like Borrell is trying to show that the EU is strong in the international sphere and that they won’t take anymore of Russia’s attacks. 

However, this is easier said than done. Foreign Policy is the one area in which the EU fails, and as High Representative, Borrell is blamed for this and even more than before after his visit to Moscow.

As mentioned earlier, Borrell did not have the full support of all the 27 members, and this is not the first time something like this has happened. This shows the importance of nationalist concerns within the EU which prevents the union from having a cohesive foreign policy and a unique voice. Because of this, Borrell has a hard time defending the interests of the union in the international sphere. He is supposed to be the voice of the 27, but in order for him to be able to do this, he needs only one message, not 27. 

What is Borrell doing?

Answer: He is trying to get the 27 to agree on taking stronger action against Russia.

The EU’s foreign policy is referred to as Wandel durch Handel which translates to transformation through trade. This is the line of action that Borrell must follow. However, this type of policy is based on the use of soft power, as it contemplates the idea of countries changing their way of acting thanks to their commercial relations. In other words, the EU would expect Russia to comply with human rights because Europe is their main commercial ally. 

This might have worked in the past, when Russia’s economy was on the verge of collapsing and being in good terms with the EU was essential to them. However, this is not the case anymore, Russia is turning to Asia without giving a second thought to what the EU thinks it’s right. 

Borrell can’t change Europe’s foreign policy unilaterally and even if he could, he would not opt for a hard line either. So, in order to try and maintain the image of the EU as a strong player in the international arena he is trying to get all the EU members on the same boat. 

Sanctions are the only weapon left in the EU’s arsenal. However, even going forward with them might prove to be a difficult task. Amongst other sanctions, Borrell is pushing for those regarding the constructions of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany but obviously, the German government is not too keen on this and is asking for caution. 

The specific actions that the EU will take will be decided in the next Council meeting, however, the decision will have to be unanimous. So, we will have to wait and see if Borrell is finally able to get the European members to reach a consensus. 

Who is winning and what does this mean for you? 

Answer: Putin is proving that he doesn’t need the EU, while the 27 keep fighting one another. 

Sadly for the EU, all evidence points at Borrell being the loser in this conflict. While he has to fight in Brussels with his own peers with the objective of getting a forceful answer for Russia’s attacks, Putin gets to keep doing whatever he likes, insulting everyone in the process.

The never-ending conflict between Russia and the EU is dragging the EU through the mud. The problem is not that Borrell hasn’t been able to stand up to his Russian counterpart, it is that Russia continues disregarding not only the EU but the whole international community with total impunity. 

On one side, the whole Navalny case can put Putin’s government to test. There have been manifestations all around Russia since the poisoning, and even more after Navalny’s arrest and incarceration. So, we’ll have to wait and see if this actually affects Putin’s government within the domestic sphere or, if on the contrary he will be able to manage the situation and get out of it even more reinforced. 

On the other side, in terms of how this affects the European Union, there are no good news. The whole situation has shown the Union’s internal division and its lack of a proper foreign policy. The EU is facing multiple challenges right now, so we are left wondering if this will be another nail in its coffin. 

Despite this being a conflict between Borrell and Putin, and by extension the EU and the Russian government, we can’t forget to mention the other of the international players. Asian countries and the US will probably have something to say about this. 

Putin is looking into Asia, especially into China and Xi Jinping, with whom Putin has always been quite close. Like Russia, China isn’t very keen on respecting nor human rights nor international law. So, a stronger partnership between the two giants might be something the international community will need to worry about. 

Finally, the US is the EU’s last line of defence when it comes to dealing with Russia. Now that EU-US relations have improved with the new Biden administration it is highly probable that the EU will be knocking on the US’s door if Putin continues with his attacks, either against human rights or the EU itself.