Russia: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the EP debate


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Ms President, dear Members of the European Parliament,

Our relations with Russia, from these three events that the President has mentioned, show that our relations with Russia continue deteriorating. These three particular issues that you want us to address today are clear examples of that. [First,] Russia’s destabilising policy against Ukraine. Despite ongoing withdrawal of its military from the Ukrainian borders, that is good news, but they were there for a long time with a lot of resources.

Second, the worrisome internal developments, particularly the case of Mr [Alexei] Navalny. Yes, he went out of his hunger [strike], but what has happened has happened.

And third, the recent diplomatic crisis, after findings of criminal acts in the Czech Republic carried out by Russian intelligence services, as the Czech Republic authorities claim.

Our relations with Russia are, once again, at a low point. Unfortunately, we cannot discard that this negative trend continues, and that we reached even more dangerous levels of deterioration. Without wanting to feed further a dynamic of escalation – nothing would be further from my intention – we do not want to feed the dynamics of escalation, let it be clear, we nevertheless assure you that we will not accept intimidating tactics. We have to respond to them if they happen.

Let us go first to the Russian military aggression against Ukraine.

The recent military build-up in the proximity of Ukrainian borders, more than 100,000 soldiers, and in illegally annexed Crimea has severely aggravated the security situation in the region.

Last week, we had an in-depth exchange with the European Union Foreign Ministers and the Ukrainian Foreign Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba. And our message was clear: Russia’s actions are completely unacceptable and we firmly support the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders. Russia must cease its provocations and cooperate on a de-escalation of the tensions, instead of portraying itself as a neutral mediator. That is what Russia is doing now, ‘We do not have anything to do with the conflict in Ukraine’, they are just there to try to mediate in external problems in which they do not intervene directly. This pretension must be debunked.

Because up to now Russia has shown no willingness to end the conflict on terms that would safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.

For Russia, the full implementation of the Minsk agreements is not a key condition, for us it is, it is a key condition for a substantial improvement of our relations. For the European Union, an independent and prosperous Ukraine is an indispensable element of the European stability and security, and that is why we encourage Ukraine to continue the pace of reforms. Because [there is] nothing better to face Russia than to be a country with a fully democratic system, freed of corruption, and using our resources that we are very much ready to provide, to improve the quality of the governance of the country.

Looking ahead, we need to continue to pass coordinated messages of a steadfast support to Ukraine. I will participate in the Summit on the Crimean Platform this August. We should also stand ready to look into options for additional response, should Russia re-escalate or cross red lines.

Second, on the health situation of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny.
There our voice has been very much strong and united. We made an European Union Statement on behalf of the 27, calling on Russian authorities to grant Mr Navalny immediate access to the doctors that he trusts. The Russian authorities are responsible for his safety and health and will be [held] accountable for it. Finally, last week, Mr Navalny was finally taken to a civilian hospital and examined by independent doctors as we were requesting. Soon after, he called off his hunger strike.

We will maintain our strong call, the same message with that I went to Moscow, to tell to the Russian Minister [of Foreign Affairs] eye to eye, face to face, the same message for a strong call ensuring the right conditions for Mr Navalny, his speedy recovery. On top of the international efforts, as you know, last Wednesday thousands of courageous people went to the streets across Russia to further demand freedom and justice.

Instead, in response, the Prosecutor’s Office has asked that Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption network be qualified as an extremist organisation. I certainly expressed our grave concerns about it yesterday.

I am quite pessimistic, unfortunately, we cannot expect that things will be improving during the next electoral process in Russia. The September Duma elections will bring more limitations to fundamental freedoms in the run-up to this election.

Third, on the involvement of Russian military intelligence in the explosion of an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic, in 2014. It is true it was seven years ago but even, it happened.

The conclusions by the Czech authorities that officers of the Russian military intelligence, the GRU, perpetrated these attacks, causing the death of two Czech citizens, are extremely serious. The fact that it happened seven years ago does not decrease the gravity of these acts. This is not about military intelligence: this is about a grave criminal offence that runs counter to Russia’s international obligations, and such behaviour cannot be accepted and that is why I have to insist once again on the idea that we have to use the three verbs that I use: to contain, to engage and to push-back.

I will go back to this idea after listening to all of you.

Let me clearly state our full support and solidarity with the Czech Republic. The asymmetric response by Russia expelling diplomats and now threatening with limitations in number of local staff is being met with a determinate response by the European Union and its Member States.

Dear members, I have to finish, but let me remind you that our policy framework towards Russia based on the five principles will continue. We will work on internal resilience, fighting against hybrid and cyber threats; strengthening our engagement with our Eastern neighbours; to assist the Russian people, stepping-up support for the Russian civil society and human rights defenders and by enhancing people-to-people contacts.

We will continue signalling to Russia that we are ready to engage in areas of clear interest. This is also true we have to engage. As I said contain, push-back and engage. Because we need to engage with Russia in areas, which are of clear shared interest, I mention the JCPOA, I can add climate change.

We need to maintain channels of communication with Moscow. I am ready to do so. And we stand also ready to improve relations if needed, if possible with the Russian government, if they show a genuine willingness to do so, and certainly in full respect of our values, principles and interests.

I have to say, to finish Ms President that unhappily I see a worrying trend of Russian authorities that seem to be choosing to deliberately deepen the confrontation with the West, with us, including through continuous attacks with disinformation and other negative activities.

We must therefore define a modus vivendi that will avoid permanent confrontation with a neighbour who seems to have decided to act as an adversary.

I am looking forward to listening to you, to know your positions, that I know will be many and varied, and to take some stock of it in my concluding remarks, because I think that we have to be prepared for a long and hard period in our relations with Russia.

Thank you, Ms President, thank you Members of the European Parliament for having this opportunity, let us make good use of it.

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Closing remarks

Well, thank you very much for all these considerations. As you can understand it is difficult to answer one by one 65 interventions. But I will try to go through the main lines of the approach to Russia.

To start with, let me tell you that just now I got the news that Russia has expelled, some moments ago, seven diplomats from Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Maybe they were listening to this debate and they took some measures about it. So as you see the confrontation continues.

I would like to try to answer some of the specific issues that you have raised, but at the same time to go a little bit above and to have a look at the general approach that we have to follow with Russia in the coming new geopolitical landscape.

After listening to all of you I think that we agree, or most of you agree, on the fact that we are going to face a long and hard period of political confrontation with Russia, and we must prepare for that. I think this is an undeniable reality because Russia now is convinced that its confrontation with Europe, in general with the West, Europe, the United States, is the surest way to reinforce the legitimacy of the Russian power.

Have a look at the speech of President [of Russia, Vladimir] Putin in the last days, his message to the nation and Duma. Have a look at the parts related with foreign policy and you will see clearly how it is the way I am saying, that the confrontation with the West is part of the reinforcement of their legitimacy towards the interior [of the country].

On the other hand, it seems that the defence of human rights, or what we require [from] them about human rights issues, for them is an existential threat. And when I went to Moscow and I explained clearly in front of them that ‘Sorry, you signed a Convention of Human Rights of the Council of Europe, we too, we are partners in this Convention and we have the right to analyse and follow how do you fulfil these obligations that you signed.’

But for them, it is an existential threat because it is a regime with a very weak economic performance, mediocre we could say, and the prospects for them are not good. And the climate change and the answer to the climate change especially coming from us with our climate plans will make it more difficult. Yes, they have a strong military power and they use it, and they deploy it when needed. Syria, Libya, Caucasus… And they have a real technological potential but economically speaking Russia is the size of Italy, not much more than Spain.

They have also then the energy weapon, many of you have been talking about it, related to Nord Stream, I will say something about it. It is very much present in the relationship between Russia and Europe, the energy question, and it plays an important role for their future, because Russia is a “rentier” economy, c’est l’économie de la rente, l’exploitation des ressources naturelles. Sans cela ils auraient vraiment un problème, ils ont déjà un problème. Et le Green Deal as I was saying will increase these problems. This is why the Russian power is engaged in a spiral in which internal repression plays an important role.

With respect to Belarus, have a look at the recent visit [Aleksandr] Lukashenko to Moscow, and you will learn about the relationship between Moscow and Belarus. I do not want to use words that can create alarm but it is clear that the main lesson that we can take about the situation with Belarus comes from the visit of Lukashenko to Moscow.

About Ukraine, Russia is not only aiming at increasing its military intimidation, not only military intimidation, but on the political level it is moving further, saying that the Ukrainian conflict – many of you have been mentioning it – does not concern Russia. ‘Oh my God, what do we have to do with the Ukrainian conflict?’ And even more, that the Minsk agreement was just a signature to look for a temporary solution but it is nothing more than that. These are some things that Moscow starts saying openly and they present themselves as a mediator in a conflict in which they are not a part.

All in all, it creates a dynamic and Russia is probably engaging on the way of a strategic alliance with China with three objectives in mind. First to reduce its technological and economic dependence on the West. If you talk with the European firms, which are investing in Russia, they will tell you the Chinese technological standards are winning the battle. More and more it is the Chinese technology, which is taking the market - against us. Even if this leaning towards China will eventually make Russia dependent on this big country, for them they need an alternative to look for outlets in terms of energy. If we are not buying so much amount of gas and oil who will buy it? There is no one else big enough to replace us. Yes, it is a lot of infrastructure to be built in order to transport this energy but this alliance with Beijing is among other things a way of looking for someone else interested in burning gas and oil from Russia.

And this alliance with Beijing will profoundly modify the international language on human rights in favour of an alternative vision of foreign relations which will have considerable implications in particular for the management of the net[works] and the world energy policy, the geopolitics of energy. And this is something that we have to keep in mind when we talk about our relation with Russia if we want to understand really what is at stake.

Mr Putin has been saying clearly, officially recognising the use of instruments of asymmetric action and we know very well how these asymmetric actions are being performed: through espionage and cyber-attacks and to support the ultraconservative forces and practicing disinformation. This is the landscape and in face of this landscape we have no other solution than to stick to the line that I propose and sensitise on using these three verbs that I would like to repeat as many times as needed in order to create a certain way of understanding the problem: to contain, to push-back and engage.

To push-back and prevent Russia from crossing red lines, especially when the sovereignty of European States is at stake, as we have seen recently about the Czech Republic. Contain: we must support all those who are the object of Russian pressure and particularly countries of the Eastern Partnership. But it does not prevent [us] from having to engage, which is the third pillar. Because Russia exists and there are files on which we have an interest to work with it: Iran, or climate change. By the way, the reason of the leaks about the conversation with the Iranian Minister [of Foreign Affairs, Javad] Zarif where it appears clear that Russia was trying to put obstacles to the negotiation of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], trying to prevent this agreement to be reached. Listen to these leaks, they are very clear about what happened at that time and what can happen now. But we have to count on Russia about the Iranian nuclear deal in spite of it.

But this strategy of pushing back, containing and engaging will only succeed if we fulfil two essential conditions. The first one is that Member States remain solidly united and avoid free riding on Moscow when Moscow tries to divide us. Only if Member States take a firm position when they come to Brussels and go back to their capitals we will be able to face Russia.

And [Member of the European Parliament Reinhard] Bütikofer has said that, and I agree with him when he says that it is in the capitals that we can have the stronger responsibility about big policy towards Russia. Because we, the European Union we try to build a common foreign policy but foreign policy, like it or not, remains according to the treaty an exclusive competence of the Member States. And the fact that you, here are the European Parliament, talk with me, High Representative about how to deal with Russia does not make you severe the basic principles of foreign policy belonging to the Member States. And I have to make them agree. And if they do not agree then we have do not have a policy.

Thank you to Mr Bütikofer for remembering that at the end we have to look also to the Member States, it means to the governments of the countries that you represent here. If they take a firm position in Brussels and then they go back to their capital and forget about their commitments and do free riding in their relations with Russia it is very difficult to have a common policy, and if we do not have a common policy then the European Union does not have the tools to do the job that you are asking me to do. And this has some relationship for sure with Nord Stream that has been mentioned here several times.

The second condition and I want to stress it also, is that the countries of the Eastern Partnership, which we help to face the Russian pressure, must imperatively reform themselves. They need to use our help and our support not as a rent but as an instrument for more internal reforms. Yes, they are suffering [from] the Russian pressure. The best way of facing this pressure is reforming, becoming fully democratic countries in order to build an economic prosperity and a coherent society, in freedom. With our support. It is the best way of supporting [them in face of] the Russian pressure. And it is why we have to condition our support, big support. I do not think they do not deserve it but as always this support has to produce results and we have to be very much exigent to be sure that our policy of supporting is well oriented to the results that we require, and for sure they require also.

About some details, questions like the use of Swift, well Swift is an international organisation, a private international organisation in which the European Union has no power. We should be together with a lot of other people in order to be able to influence the decision about Swift.

Sanctions, sanctions to the oligarchs. I would like very much to have a reason that can be legally supported. But our instrument, the last one, the human rights instrument that we approved and we have been using for the first time against Russia and China, does not consider corruption among one of the reasons to be employed, sorry, that is what we have approved.

About the Nord Stream that many of you have been mentioning – yes, it is a controversial infrastructure. The European Commission has already said that this infrastructure does not lead to diversification of the energy sources of the European Union, which is one of the objectives of our Energy Union. But it is a private endeavor. The European Union does not have the means and tools to decide what to do on Nord Stream 2. It is a matter of private firms and it is a matter of the Germans.

What we can do when Nord Stream starts operating – if it does – is to require that it will be working in a non-discriminatory and in a transparent way with an adequate degree of regulatory oversight, in line with the key principles of International and European Union Energy law.

I want to remind you that the Gas Directive that entered into force, a couple of years ago - in May 2019 - gives the [European] Union the competence to apply the European Union energy law on interconnection from third countries. This is what we are going to do. But at the same time do not ask me to support the American sanctions against the firms that are building Nord Stream 2. I am against the extraterritorial sanctions imposed by the United States –  everywhere. I cannot be depending on the colour of the people affected to be in favour or against it. You have to keep coherence.

These are some reflections about what you have been saying during this long exchange of views. To summarize, we must continue refuting Russians attempt to portray itself as a mediator in Ukraine. We must continue passing strong messages about the three issues that we have been discussing today.

With regard to [Alexei] Navalny’s case, let me say that there is a place where we can do something; it is the Council of Europe. In the Council of Europe, something can be done, more than here.

The European Union members are members of the Council of Europe. Nobody has been going to the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights, nobody as often as [Alexei] Navalny. And rarely has this system of collective human rights protection been as modest on the answer. That is important to take into consideration, because [Alexei] Navalny went to the court 20 times. He has been detained 10 months in house arrest, twice sentenced for corruption in fake trials. Every time, the European Court of Human Rights has been ruling in his favour. He has been attacked three times, the last one with Novichok, and no real action has been taken.

I think that the Council of Europe could do more, because this is a democratic place, where democracies sit around - Russia is part of this assembly. I think that clear decisions from the European Court of Human Rights can help to face this problem, the issue of Mr Navalny.

We will have to continue talking about Russia. I want to insist that the word “engage” is part of these three verbs, and that we have a lot of work to do in order to create unity among us to impulse reforms in the Eastern border countries and to maintain with Russia the dialogue needed in order to work together on issues in which we need to work together.

I do not have any kind of interest in escalating against Russia. We do not need to escalate, we just need to keep firm in defending our principles, using the tools and means that we have.

But, please, look for solutions in the Member States’ capitals also. Do not believe that everything can be decided here by me, by the European Commission or by the European Parliament. Because foreign policy is something that today is still a matter of Member States. Help me to build a Common Foreign Policy toward Russia.

Thank you.

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Peter Stano
Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
+32 (0)460 75 45 53