Lavrov and Russia outplay the European Union yet again

Sergei Lavrov’s threat to sever ties with the European Union shows how much more focused and forward-thinking Russia’s diplomacy is than that of the EU.

Expert comment Updated 7 July 2021 Published 15 February 2021 3 minute READ

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has been outsmarting most of his counterparts around the world for more than 17 years. He can do it without breaking a sweat, although rumours have long circulated that he wants out. Presumably, he does his job so well in his boss’s eyes – not making Russian foreign policy but pushing it out – he is not allowed to leave.

The most recent humiliation was inflicted on EU foreign policy high representative Josep Borrell when he travelled to Russia to enquire whether Moscow was interested in closer relations with the EU while Russia was in the middle of its most repressive protest-quelling this century, only to find – to no-one’s surprise but his – that it was not.

His trip coincided with the release of videos of alleged EU police brutality and a further shot across the bows in the form of diplomatic expulsions by Russia. But perhaps Borrell can take solace in the knowledge he is far from the first to ‘discover that hubris and misplaced belief in their own competence don’t outweigh the combined experience of centuries of dealing with Russia’ as my colleague Keir Giles commented on this episode.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s president (and its foreign minister at the start of Lavrov’s tenure) is another western politician now implementing Russian policy, whether willingly or through naivety, for his own country. Steinmeier’s defence of Russia’s Nordstream 2 gas pipeline to Germany on the grounds that energy is the ‘one of the last bridges between Russia and Europe’ endorses an endeavour with no economic rationale beyond financially rewarding the Kremlin and some of Putin’s closest acolytes.

Steinmeier doubled down by saying Germany owed Nordstream 2 to Russia because of Nazi atrocities, and that there was a ‘bigger picture’. Clearly Ukraine, which would be debilitated by the pipeline, is, by definition, not part of that picture.

As a rule of thumb, most eastern European foreign ministers are considerably more adept with Russia than those further west – primarily because eastern Europe knows better than to put individuals without the necessary experience in charge of dealing with Russia.

But the eastern European countries lack the essential clout. It would be of enormous benefit if all senior officials who travel to Moscow can understand that, beyond the immediacies of arms control talks, there is no scope for cooperation with an adversary whose actions show it prefers violence and subversion to peaceful collaboration.

Lavrov’s skill and Achilles heel

It is not surprising Lavrov is better at this than everyone else. As well as his own years of training and honing arguments to be better briefed than his adversaries, the Kremlin – to its credit – has a plan. This plan is to never deviate from the course, never make concessions (there have been none in Russian foreign policy in the past 20 years), never admit to mistakes or lessons learned, and single-mindedly pursue the goal of ensuring 21st century Russia retains all the international privileges accorded to 20th century Soviet Union.

But for all his skill and experience, Lavrov does have one vulnerability. He happens to be wrong in almost everything he says (again, he doesn’t actually do anything). This ought to be an opportunity for a sophisticated and knowledgeable counterpart to push back.

So, if Lavrov claims European police forces treat political protestors the same as Russia, that can be refuted with unarguable detail. If he claims interference in Russia’s internal affairs, then alongside reminders of the commitments Russia has signed up to under the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights, the response should point out – with as much civility as the accusation merits – that ‘our internal affairs’ is no longer an acceptable defence in 21st century Europe. And that continued flouting of Russia’s obligations brings meaningful consequences.

But herein lies the second failure of EU diplomats. Not only are they unwilling, or unable, to respond to Lavrov’s diplomatic sleight of hand they are also unwilling, or unable, to take decisive action. By contrast, the Russians are quite willing to act and have amply demonstrated this by a series of bold – albeit rash and reprehensible – moves throughout the post-Soviet period.

Therefore, when Lavrov threatens to sever ties with Europe, there needs to be careful consideration of what this means. The threat will cause European politicians to flap and worry, and Russia may therefore get what it wants without needing to follow through. The Kremlin would be quite willing to expel not just diplomats, but journalists and possibly businessmen and students, and be prepared to accept the discomfort and inconvenience caused to Russia. The EU and its allies are palpably not, so in the short term at least, Russia wins again.

Measures taken by the EU are devised so as not to inflict pain on itself far more so than they are to cause Russia pain (indeed they do not hurt Moscow much). In effect, the EU is caught in the pincers of its own cowardice – flinching at the thought of meaningful measures against Russia that would have an impact at home, and knuckling under at the first hint of petulance by Moscow.

Instead, the EU prefers to cause as little trouble with Moscow as possible in the hope the problem will solve itself, that Putin will depart sooner rather than later, and that what comes next will be significantly better. But all of these are highly unlikely because, so long as European politicians confuse hope with strategy, Russia will continue to cause damage, peace missions to Moscow will continue to be sent home with their tails between their legs, and the EU will continue to be outplayed.