Time to talk with Russia rather than about Russia

Time to talk with Russia rather than about Russia

Today, I am travelling to Moscow. The last time an EU High Representative visited Russia was four years ago. The main purpose of my visit is to discuss the issues that are causing us concern related to Russia’s place and role within Europe and its broader international engagement.

EU-Russia relations have been deteriorating over the past decade and, especially since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol in 2014, they have been marked by a lack of trust. Today, we fundamentally see each other as rivals and competitors and not as partners.

We have strong disagreements when it comes to the conflicts in our immediate neighbourhood, from Ukraine and Belarus to Libya and Syria, and when it comes to human rights and fundamental freedoms. The poisoning of Alexey Navalny, his arrest and consequent condemnation, and the arrest of thousands of demonstrators over the past days are painful reminders of the shrinking space for opposition, civil society and independent voices in the country. Russia’s actions over recent years do not match its commitments neither as member of the Council of Europe nor participating State of the OSCE. Let’s remember that these institutions are at the heart of cooperation, peace and security in Europe.

We need to have a frank exchange with Russia on the state of our relations. The point of diplomacy is precisely to engage, to pass messages and to try to find a common ground. Diplomacy is essential when things are bad. Our channels of communication should always be open. However, we have been talking more about – or even past – one another than with each other. This only perpetuates mistrust and does little to address the challenges ahead.

We must be clear about our concerns. At the same time, we must also acknowledge that we are closely interlinked with our biggest neighbour, not only historically or geographically. The European Union is still Russia’s first trading partner and its greatest source of foreign direct investment. Russian students are the largest non-EU beneficiaries of Erasmus+ university exchanges and Russia is the country where the most Schengen visas are issued. Our ties remain mutually important.

We therefore have to follow a multipronged approach, as reflected in the set of guiding principles agreed by the EU for its relations with Russia. This will be the frame of reference for my visit to Moscow. It includes selective engagement on issues in the interest of the EU, as well as reaching out to and supporting Russian civil society. This is something that cannot be done via videoconference.

In spite of all this, there are issues where we can work together, and when we do, we can achieve results. The best example being the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran Deal, which is still one of the cornerstones of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture. Many regional crises would benefit from closer understanding and joint efforts by the EU and Russia.

The global challenges of our time require global solutions, starting with the Covid-19 pandemic. We need more cooperation, transparency and exchange of information, not less. We need to fight disinformation, which in this particular case is especially harmful and can put people’s lives at risk. We have seen activities in this field coming from Russia.

We want to engage further with Russia on climate challenges. We count on Russia’s commitment to make COP26 in Glasgow a success. Only by seizing opportunities for a just and fair transition for all can we safeguard prosperity, whilst saving the planet.

Finally, we must tackle the new threats and opportunities emerging in the digital sphere and cyber space. We have witnessed many cyber-attacks in the recent past, which have become symptomatic of new rivalries. On the EU side, we have been clear on our commitment to settle international disputes in cyberspace by peaceful means. But this does not mean that we do not respond. We have introduced sanctions against perpetrators of malicious activities and we will not refrain from continuing to do so, if need be.

In line with the Helsinki Final Act, stability in Europe must be based on cooperation, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Engaging in dialogue does not mean we go back to “business as usual”, but we need to find areas of understanding to rebuild trust progressively.

I will inform EU leaders on the outcome of my visit in a forthcoming strategic debate on EU-Russia relations. It remains crucial to ensure clear direction and unity in our engagement with Russia.

Back in the 1990s, we dreamt of a different Europe, all working together to face global challenges. In 2021, these dreams unfortunately do not match reality. They should nevertheless continue to inspire us and we should engage in making them happen.

Josep Borrell is the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

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