Russia has cast doubt on EU top diplomat Josep Borrell’s account of his “tense” talks in Moscow, as more than 70 MEPs called for his resignation.
Borrell wrote in his blog on Sunday (8 February) that his behind-closed-doors talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow last Friday reached “high levels of tension”, when he urged Russia to free opposition star Alexei Navalny.
Borrell published his blog amid fierce criticism over his handling of a press conference with Lavrov last Friday, in which he said little on Navalny, while letting Lavrov harangue the EU as he stood, smiling next to the Russian minister.
Borrell’s spokesman repeated the blog claims in Brussels on Monday.
“There was silence [in Friday’s press conference] from the high representative [Borrell] because he was very vocal in the negotiations with Mr. Lavrov”, which included “high levels of tension”, the spokesman told media.
But for its part, the Russian foreign ministry said the same day that Borrell was lying.
“From the impressions of the Russian participants, there was no particular tension in the discussions. Everything went in a frank and professional way. That is why the Russian foreign ministry expressed surprise with the descriptions in Mr. Borrell’s blog,” a Russian spokesman told EUobserver.
“Perhaps, the EU foreign policy chief received explanations upon his arrival [back] to Brussels on how to lay emphases [on his visit],” the Russian ministry also told Russian news agency Tass the same day.
Russia has a track record of anti-EU disinformation.
But Estonia’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, also voiced scepticism about Borrell’s version of events.
She had been told the Borrell-Lavrov talks lasted five hours and had been “long and difficult”, she said in a statement on Monday, but she wanted to ask Borrell personally “about the content of his meetings in Moscow”.
And an EU source told this website that Borrell “is not telling the truth” about his ‘tense’ Lavrov talks.
Meanwhile, Borrell’s people contradicted themselves in his defence, adding to the impression of face-saving spin.
Borrell had asked to visit Navalny in prison, his spokesman said on Monday, but Lavrov told him to apply to a Russian court for permission, at which point Borrell decided there would not be enough time to expedite the procedure.
But an EU spokeswoman had told press last Friday Borrell had decided not to visit Navalny because that would have given the “wrong impression” that he agreed with his jailing.
The Spanish diplomat is to be cross-examined by MEPs over his Moscow trip in the European Parliament on Tuesday.
And things could get ugly, after more than 70 of them cosigned a letter to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen calling for his resignation on Monday.
The signatories mostly came from the centre-right European People’s Party and the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists groups.
But the commission rejected the idea out of hand.
Von der Leyen, “lends her full support to the high representative [Borrell] for the trip to Moscow,” her spokesman said.
Russia also expelled three European diplomats last Friday in an added affront to Borrell, on grounds they had taken part in “unlawful” pro-Navalny protests.
And Germany, Poland, and Sweden, whose diplomats were sent packing, expelled three Russian diplomats in return on Monday.
“That [Russia’s expulsions] decision was in no way justified,” the German foreign ministry said.
For its part, the Polish EU embassy in Brussels held video-talks on Monday with Navalny’s associates, as well as EU, UK, and US diplomats.
They discussed potential new Russia sanctions, a Polish diplomat told EUobserver, amid Navalny’s call for EU asset-freezes and visa-bans on Russia’s top oligarchs.
Borrell also indicated, in Sunday’s blog, he now favoured blacklisting Russian officials involved in Navalny’s jailing.
Eight EU countries – the Baltic states, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland – had already called for this before his Russia trip.
But it remains to be seen if the EU reaches a consensus, after Austria, France, and Germany said they wanted business as usual with Russia on a new gas pipeline, called Nord Stream 2, last weekend despite Russia’s offensive behaviour.
“The Kremlin slimed Borrell,” Daniel Fried, a retired senior US diplomat, said on Twitter on Monday.
“The task now is not to scratch at him or the EU but for the EU, US, and UK to determine next steps in response to Putin’s aggression, repression and (yes) insolence toward the EU that reached out in good faith,” Fried said, referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“What Lavrov did was just calling the EU’s bluff,” Urich Speck, a Russia expert at the German Marshall Fund, a US think-tank in Berlin, also said.
“Yet everybody is blaming Borrell now. Instead, pressure should rise on Berlin, Paris, and others to agree to a stronger, more coherent Russia policy,” Speck said.