Staring into the abyss: EU Russia relations

Written by Marko Milutinovic, member of the editorial team of Libertas  

When discussing the future of this historically strained relationship, it is important to note that since 2014, relations between the European Union and the Russian Federation have been practically non-existent, following the start of the conflict in Ukraine and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea. In all honesty, it is challenging when talking about the relations between these two entities to hope for a positive end to this story. On the one hand is the European Union, which has been working for decades on end to improve human rights, the rule of law, and in general, has worked on enhancing the quality of life both for EU citizens and those who are not EU citizens. On the other hand is the Russian Federation, whose stance on the aforementioned issues is often in direct opposition to the work of the EU.  

Russia’s record on human rights is atrocious at best. There are so many human rights violations occurring under the Putin regime that we would need countless hours just to list them all. Of course, most notable are the flagrant violations of some of the basic human rights which are taken for granted in Western democracies, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and so on. That is not to mention the Russian government’s unacceptable approach to the LGBTI movement.  

All of this was happening before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which saw Putin’s government primed for another despicable action, namely a wave of vaccine propaganda. In the past few months, several Russian media outlets have been sharing false information about the vaccines created in the West. This disinformation revolved around exaggerating the dangers from the vaccines made in the Western countries while at the same time boasting about the success of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine. Such propaganda wars are nothing new for the Russian Federation, which has been involved in many of them in recent years. Their interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections saw the rise into power of Donald Trump, which in turn pushed the doomsday clock almost to midnight during his four-year mandate. This deliberate triggering of a propaganda war during a pandemic in which millions have already died, and millions more are at risk, is a particularly heinous act.  

Indeed, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Putin administration has gone overboard and makes little effort to disguise its behaviour. Prominent Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, knows this all too well. He fell ill during the flight back to Moscow from Siberia last August, and was rushed to the hospital after his flight had made an emergency landing in Omsk, where he spent two days as his supporters fought to have him transported to Germany for further treatment. The Russian hospital claimed that there were no signs of poisoning and initially refused to let him fly for medical attention to Germany. After mounting pressure to let him leave, doctors finally agreed to the transfer. Once in Germany, the doctors provided the necessary treatment and ran tests that confirmed that he was indeed poisoned and that the poison in question was Novichok. UN-appointed independent investigators conducted an investigation into the Navalny case. They tried to contact the Russian government; however, their attempts were unsuccessful given that the Russians had never responded. The investigators concluded that the poisoning and attempted murder of Navalny, combined with the lack of any investigation, and denial of any involvement is a part of a larger trend that spans over several decades. This trend saw a number of murders and attempted murders of Kremlin critics.The UN report concludes that it is hard to believe that non-state actors have entirely realized this on their own: in other words, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that this is at least partially a state-sponsored trend. Furthermore, they stressed out that Russia is known to have developed, stored, and used Novichok. In addition, the version used on Alexei Navalny was a novel one, which indicates that Russia is continuing to develop the substance. This is concerning because there is no reason to believe that Russians will cease to use this practice, as well as that the people who are in the vicinity will be in significant danger. This already happened once before during the 2018 poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, UK. During this event, a police officer fell ill after being exposed to the nerve agent Novichok; some months later, a member of the British public died as a result of accidentally finding a discarded container of Novichok. The presence of Novichok was later confirmed by the Organization for the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons. The poisonings in the UK served to demonstrate that civilians are seen as no more than collateral damage in Putin’s quest to silence his critics.  

Although all of this is atrocious, the Russian government has not stopped their persecution of their critics: once Aleksei Navalny recovered from the poisoning, he decided to return to Russia. He was immediately arrested upon landing in Moscow for violating his suspended sentence. He was sentenced to three and a half years for this. During the trials, there were protests, which were dealt with by the Russian police, and up to 1000 protestors were jailed. Moreover, Navalny is now serving his sentence in the Russian penal colony. He has stated that he is exposed to unbearable conditions, and that his health is rapidly deteriorating. According to his lawyer, Navalny has been woken up around eight times per night since beginning his sentence, and is having difficulties using one of his legs.   Against this backdrop of appalling behaviour from the Russian side, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, embarked on a disastrous diplomatic visit to Moscow, contrary to the advice of several EU Member States. The trip proved to be highly humiliating for the EU: at a joint press conference with Borrell, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the EU as an “unreliable partner,” and accused prominent European leaders of lying about the Navalny affair. Borrell stayed silent, while his Russian counterpart was openly criticising the European Union. During the visit, Russia expelled three EU diplomats. As a result of this catastrophic visit, more than 70 MEPs asked for Borrell’s resignation. However, it was soon pretty clear that nothing significant would come from this. A Commission spokesperson said that Borell enjoys the full support of the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.  

In summary, it is evident that the relations are at an all-time low between the EU and Russia. It is difficult to envision the relations taking a turn for the better any time soon. The Russian regime is doing what any tyrannical government does: abusing its power in every area, silencing its critics, and squashing any thought of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Looking at all of this, we must not forget that Putin and his accomplices do not represent the whole of Russia. They represent their own interests, which in turn are hurting the people of Russia. Having that in mind, sanctioning Russia as a country would further hurt the Russian people too. The better option would be to use targeted sanctions against those closest to Putin, who are enabling his autocratic behaviour. There is a need to punish those people through sanctions and to mount the pressure. This was explained clearly and succinctly by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who stressed that sanctions actually work, even though we cannot judge their success after a short amount of time, such as six months; it is a longer process than that. Furthermore, she pointed out that these sanctions work because we target those responsible and not the Russian people. This is how the European Union should move forward, united and coordinated against Putin and his enablers. Let us hope that common sense within the EU will prevail and that we will not have any more colossal mistakes, such as Borell’s visit to Moscow!  

About the Author: Marko Milutinović (HR) is an individual member of LYMEC. Besides this, he is also a Young European Ambassador for the Western Balkans, as well as a Youth delegate at UNITE 2030. Previously, he graduated from the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Law, where he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in European Integration. Marko is passionate about Climate action, Environmental protection, as well as the topic of the Federalization of the European Union.   Sources:

  1. https://time.com/5948017/news-front-covid-19-information-war/
  2. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-doomsdayclock-idUSKBN15A2JJ
  3. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/?utm_campaign=homeAdvegas1?
  4. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54012278
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/21/alexei-navalny-to-be-flown-to-germany-for-suspected-poisoning-treatment
  6. https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1086012
  7. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43506232
  8. Amesbury: Two collapse near Russian spy poisoning site - BBC News
  9. https://www.dw.com/en/salisbury-attack-chemical-weapons-watchdog-confirms-uk-findings-on-nerve-agent/a-43358224
  10. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55910974
  11. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/02/russian-opposition-leader-alexei-navalny-jailed
  12. https://www.dw.com/en/alexei-navalny-says-he-is-being-tortured-in-prison/a-56995363
  13. https://www.euronews.com/2021/02/09/a-predictable-mistake-meps-slam-borrell-over-moscow-trip
  14. https://www.politico.eu/article/estonian-pm-eu-has-to-speed-up-with-sanctions-on-russia-kaja-kallas/?utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Twitter#Echobox=1613127221
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