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How to deal with Russia?

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Josep Borrell Fontelles laying flowers on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was murdered, February 2021

Following last week's European Council where EU heads of government held a heated discussion on the EU's relationship with Russia, EU High Representative Josep Borrell writes about how the EU should deal with Russia.

In recent years, relations with Russia have deteriorated sharply. Russia under President Putin has distanced itself from Europe, through deliberate policy choices, both at home and abroad. We wish these choices were different, but we have to base ourselves on this reality and the possibility that EU-Russia relations could even take a turn for the worse. At the same time, we share a continent with Russia and it remains a vital actor on numerous fronts. We therefore have no alternative but to develop a principled, balanced and strategic approach.

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At the Summit, all EU leaders confirmed their resolve to work for ‘a united, long-term, and strategic European approach based on the five guiding principles’. These five principles were established by the Council in 2016, after the outbreak of the conflict in and around Ukraine, and have guided us ever since. Indeed, leaders tasked the Council, the Commission and me as High Representative to continue to implement them fully.

Within this overall context of the five principles and to make them more operational, the Commission and I have proposed to develop our policies on Russia along three main action tracks: to push back, constrain and engage. What does this mean?

First, we must push back against deliberate violations of international law by Russia in our member states and our neighbourhood, and continue to speak up for democratic values. These are matters of direct concern to all members of the UN, the OSCE and the Council of Europe, and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of any country.

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Push back also means we must continue our support to Ukraine and its territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence. This includes continuing to call on Russia to assume its responsibility and to implement the Minsk agreements. We will also continue to pressure Russia for its failure to cooperate with the international efforts to achieve justice for the victims of the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine.

"The Union itself must become more robust, resilient and cohesive. The first form of cohesion is preserving the unity of purpose among our member states."

Second, we must constrain Russia’s attempts to undermine the EU. The Union itself must become more robust, resilient and cohesive. The first form of cohesion is preserving the unity of purpose among our member states. If member states agree on a common position in Brussels, but back in respective capitals and bilaterally pursue a different policy, a strong European Union position vis-à-vis Russia will remain an empty shell. 

We must fully enforce EU legislation to counter crime emanating from Russia, including cyber attacks, working closely with like-minded partners. The EU needs to develop its cyber security and defence capacity, as well as our strategic communication capabilities, by stepping up work on foreign information manipulation and disinformation. We will also have to intensify our fight against corruption and money laundering and ensure greater transparency of the origins and purpose of such financial flows to and from Russia.

"The more successful the countries of the Eastern Partnership are in their reform process, the more resilient they will be and thus better able to resist Russian pressure or interference."

Another aspect of a constraining policy consists of reinforcing the resilience of partner states of the European Union, especially the members of the Eastern Partnership. This requires them to improve their internal governance: fighting corruption, promoting the independence of the judiciary and guaranteeing fundamental freedoms. The more successful they are in their reform process, the more resilient they will be and thus better able to resist Russian pressure or interference. As EU, we will continue our support to Russia’s neighbours so they and their citizens remain free to determine their own future.

Third, the final pillar of our relationship with Russia: engagement. Like it or not, Russia is a major player on the global stage and it has increased its political presence in many parts of the world, including in countries where EU interests are at stake: Libya, Afghanistan, Nagorno Karabakh and Syria are telling examples. I am also thinking of the JCPOA on Iran, to which Russia is a party and which we must put back on track.

There are also global issues on which it is in our interest to engage Russia because not solving these issues will affect us all. The most important of these is climate change, where there is a clear need for cooperation, for example through the introduction of a CO2 price in Russia, or the implementation of an ETS, or the development of hydrogen. The pandemic has also shown the need for global cooperation on public health. The virus knows no borders, and the border the EU and Russia share is over 2000 kilometres long. 

"Our quarrel is with the policy choices of the Russian government, not the Russian people. So, we should strengthen people-to-people contacts."

Crucially, we must continue to engage with Russian civil society and citizens. Our quarrel is with the policy choices of the Russian government, not the Russian people. So, we should strengthen people-to-people contacts, which could include more visa facilitation for young people, academics, or other cross-border exchanges. We must continue to support Russian civil society and human rights defenders and be more flexible and creative in the way we do so.

The debate and outcome of the European Council: what’s next?

The European Council agreed on a balanced way forward. It followed an intense debate on the last-minute proposal by France and Germany to consider re-establishing Summits with Russia (there have been none since 2014). The pros and cons of this were discussed and in the end, leaders agreed to ‘explore formats and conditionalities of dialogue with Russia’.

"Foreign policy is about talking to people with the power to influence events, including those with whom we have profound disagreements. The point of that engagement is precisely to influence actions and thinking."

From my side, I can only reiterate my commitment to work on this basis: demanding an improvement of Russia’s behaviour on numerous issues and recognising the need to be ready to engage.

Foreign policy is about talking to people with the power to influence events. Engaging Russia is not a luxury and even less a concession. A global player has to talk to all actors, including those with whom we have profound disagreements. The point of that engagement is precisely to influence actions and thinking. 

We all know that Russia, at present, has no interest in seeing the EU develop as a global actor. But they cannot ignore us nor should we allow them just to bet on, or encourage our divisions.  EU member states may have tactical divergences but no fundamental ones when it comes to defending our values.

In the coming weeks and months, I will take forward the various action tracks that leaders have identified:

First and foremost this means working to preserve EU unity, which is our strongest asset when dealing with Moscow.

Second, the European Council invited the Commission and myself to present options for additional restrictive measures to be ready in case Russia continues to breach International law in our member states and in our neighbourhood.

Third, the European Council also asked the Commission and myself to develop options on topics such as climate and the environment, health, as well as foreign policy issues where we can explore ways of engaging with Russia. It also recalled the importance of people-to-people contacts, and the need to further support Russian civil society.

"The European Council conclusions set a clear direction for our relations with Russia: keeping a firm line on substance while preserving the necessity to maintain open channels of communication."

In sum, the European Council conclusions set a clear direction for our relations with Russia: keeping a firm line on substance while preserving the necessity to maintain open channels of communication.

Ultimately, Russia is our biggest neighbour. It will not go away and it is unlikely that in the near future there will be a political change, leading it to modify its behavioural pattern substantially. The EU has to factor this in and develop policies that will enable to reach some form of cohabitation, protecting our interests and values and halting dynamics of escalation.

Russia

Russia responsible for Litvinenko killing, European rights court rules

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A copy of The Litvinenko Inquiry Report is seen during a news conference in London, Britain, January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Files

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday (21 September) that Russia was responsible for the 2006 killing of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko who died an agonizing death after he was poisoned in London with Polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope, write Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden.

Kremlin critic Litvinenko, 43, died weeks after drinking green tea laced with polonium-210 at London’s plush Millennium hotel in an attack Britain has long blamed on Moscow.

In its ruling, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concluded Russia was responsible for the killing.

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"It found that Mr Litvinenko’s assassination was imputable to Russia," its statement said.

Russia has always denied any involvement in Litvinenko's death which plunged Anglo-Russian relations to a post-Cold War low.

A lengthy British inquiry concluded in 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved a Russian intelligence operation to murder Litvinenko.

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It also found that former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoy and another Russian, Dmitry Kovtun, carried out the killing as part of an operation probably directed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

The ECHR agreed. Both men have always denied involvement.

"The court found it established, beyond reasonable doubt, that the assassination had been carried out by Mr Lugovoy and Mr Kovtun," the ruling said.

"The planned and complex operation involving the procurement of a rare deadly poison, the travel arrangements for the pair, and repeated and sustained attempts to administer the poison indicated that Mr Litvinenko had been the target of the operation."

It too concluded that the Russian state was to blame and that had the men been carrying out a "rogue operation", Moscow would have the information to prove that theory.

"However, the government had made no serious attempt to provide such information or to counter the findings of the UK authorities," the ruling said.

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Russia

Europe condemns atmosphere of fear surrounding Russian elections

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Asked about this week’s Duma and regional elections in the Russian federation, Peter Stano, the EU’s External Action Service spokesman said that the elections had taken place in an atmosphere of fear. The EU has noted that independent and reliable sources have reported serious violations of electoral law.

Stano said that elections, wherever they are taking place in the world, should be run in a free and fair way. He said the elections had taken place without any credible international observation and that the EU regretted Russia’s decision to severely reduce and restrict the size and format of the OSCE - Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights mission thereby preventing its deployment.  

Stano said the crackdown on opposition politicians, civil society organizations, civil society activists, human rights activists, independent media outlets and against journalists ahead of the election was aimed at silencing critical opposition and removing competition. 

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The European Commission calls on the Russian Federation to abide by its commitments taken within the UN and Council of Europe framework in terms of protection of human rights and democratic values, which includes also organizing free and fair elections. 

Ukraine

The spokesperson added that the European Commission will never recognize the elections in illegally annexed Crimea and also expressed concern that citizens of Ukraine in the Ukrainian territories which are currently occupied were given passports and allowed to vote. Stanton said that this ran counter to the spirit of the Minsk agreements.

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When asked if the EU will recognize the election results, Stano said that this was a national competence and up to individual member states, but added that it might be something that EU foreign affairs ministers discuss when they meet this evening in New York, where they are meeting for the UN General Assembly. EU High Representative Josep Borrell will be meeting again with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, at one of many bilateral meetings planned for this week.

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European elections

Russian pro-Putin party wins majority after crackdown: Foes cry foul

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Russia's ruling United Russia party, which supports President Vladimir Putin (pictured), retained its parliamentary majority after an election and a sweeping crackdown on its critics, but opponents alleged widespread fraud, write Andrew Osborn, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Maria Tsvetkova, Polina Nikolskaya and Tom Balmforth.

With 85% of ballots counted today (20 September), the Central Election Commission said United Russia had won nearly 50% of the vote, with its nearest rival, the Communist Party, at just under 20%.

Although that amounts to an emphatic official win, it is a slightly weaker performance for United Russia than at the last parliamentary election in 2016, when the party won just over 54% of the vote.

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A malaise over years of faltering living standards and allegations of corruption from jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny have drained some support, compounded by a tactical voting campaign organised by Navalny's allies.

Kremlin critics, who alleged large-scale vote rigging, said the election was in any case a sham.

United Russia would have fared much worse in a fair contest, given a pre-election crackdown that outlawed Navalny's movement, barred his allies from running and targeted critical media and non-governmental organisations, they said.

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Electoral authorities said they had voided any results at voting stations where there had been obvious irregularities and that the overall contest had been fair.

The outcome looks unlikely to change the political landscape, with Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, still dominating ahead of the next presidential election in 2024.

Putin has yet to say whether he will run. He was due to speak today after 1000 GMT.

The 68-year-old leader remains a popular figure with many Russians who credit him with standing up to the West and restoring national pride.

The near complete results showed the Communist Party finishing in second, followed by the nationalist LDPR party and the Fair Russia party with just over 7% each. All three parties usually back the Kremlin on most key issues.

A new party called "New People", appeared to have squeezed into parliament with just over 5%.

At a celebratory rally at United Russia's headquarters broadcast on state television, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, an ally of the Russian leader, shouted: "Putin! Putin! Putin!" to a flag-waving crowd that echoed his chant.

Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box before starting to count votes during a three-day parliamentary election in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia September 19, 2021. REUTERS/Tatiana Meel NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box after polls closed during a three-day long parliamentary election, at a polling station inside Kazansky railway terminal in Moscow, Russia September 19, 2021. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
Members of a local election commission count ballots at a polling station inside Kazansky railway terminal after polls closed during a three-day long parliamentary election in Moscow, Russia September 19, 2021. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box after polls closed during a three-day long parliamentary election, at a polling station inside Kazansky railway terminal in Moscow, Russia September 19, 2021. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

Allies of Navalny, who is serving a jail sentence for parole violations he denies, had encouraged tactical voting against United Russia, a scheme that amounted to supporting the candidate most likely to defeat it in a given electoral district. Read more.

In many cases, they had advised people to hold their noses and vote Communist. Authorities had tried to block the initiative online.

The Central Election Commission was slow to release data from online voting in Moscow, where United Russia traditionally does not fare as well as in other regions amid signs it may have lost some seats in the capital.

Golos, an election watchdog accused by authorities of being a foreign agent, recorded thousands of violations, including threats against observers and ballot stuffing, blatant examples of which circulated on social media. Some individuals were caught on camera depositing bundles of votes in urns.

The Central Election Commission said it had recorded 12 cases of ballot stuffing in eight regions and that the results from those polling stations would be voided.

United Russia held nearly three quarters of the outgoing State Duma's 450 seats. That dominance helped the Kremlin pass constitutional changes last year that allow Putin to run for two more terms as president after 2024, and potentially stay in power until 2036.

Navalny's allies were barred from running in the election after his movement was banned in June as extremist. Other opposition figures allege they were targeted with dirty tricks campaigns. Read more.

The Kremlin denies a politically driven crackdown and says individuals are prosecuted for breaking the law. Both it and United Russia denied any role in the registration process for candidates.

"One day we will live in a Russia where it will be possible to vote for good candidates with different political platforms," Navalny ally Leonid Volkov wrote on Telegram messenger before polls closed on Sunday.

One Moscow pensioner who gave his name only as Anatoly said he voted United Russia because he was proud of Putin's efforts to restore what he sees as Russia's rightful great-power status.

"Countries like the United States and Britain more or less respect us now like they respected the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. ... The Anglo-Saxons only understand the language of force," he said.

With official turnout reported to be around only 47%, there were signs of widespread apathy.

"I don't see the point in voting," said one Moscow hairdresser who gave her name as Irina. "It's all been decided for us anyway."

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