Diplomatic Expulsions and Euro-Russian Diplomacy
By Ruben Pfeijffer
In early February, Russia expelled three diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden, further escalating recent tensions between Russia and the EU over the arrest of Russian opposition leader Aleksej Navalny. What is the exact story behind these recent diplomatic expulsions, and what influence will they have on Russian-European diplomatic relations going forward?
In 2021, Russian-European diplomatic relations have become increasingly complicated due to two significant geopolitical developments: the arrest of Russian opposition leader Aleksej Navalny and The Lancet’s recent report on the success of the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine program. The EU now faces a serious dilemma over its diplomatic approach to Russia.
On the one hand, the EU is almost ideologically obliged to express their support for Navalny, Putin’s main political rival who recently found temporary refuge in Germany after being poisoned, for which he accused the Russian Federal Security service (FSB) in August last year. The EU simply cannot afford to stay silent on Navalny’s arrest or the violent police crackdown on his supporters, as ignoring such a blatant attack on democracy would undoubtedly lead to a serious backlash from EU member states and important Western allies like the US.
On the other hand, the EU sees the recently proven safe and effective Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine as a valid option to fill the vaccine stockpile gaps that underdelivering European manufacturers left behind. Normalizing the currently tense diplomatic relations with Russia would likely make them more inclined to distribute their vaccine to European markets.
On 5 February, it became painfully clear that Russia is very aware of their current strong diplomatic position vis-à-vis the EU when the EU's High Representative Josep Borrell visited Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov in Moscow to talk about Navalny’s arrest and the possibility of acquiring the Russian vaccine.
Despite being warned against visiting Russia by the governments of multiple EU member states, Borrell insisted on going to Moscow, stating that it is vital to pursue constructive dialogue and to put aside negative rhetoric.
Russia, however, had different plans. During his meeting with Lavrov, Borrell was surprised by announcements on Twitter that Russia had decided to declare three diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden persona non grata for allegedly attending ‘illegal’ pro-Navalny protests. Accusations that were immediately denied by the respective governments of the countries involved.
Borrell was later publicly humiliated during the joint press conference in what seemed to be a coordinated attack between Lavrov and the Russian media. He was asked several provocative and challenging questions on alleged malpractices of important EU allies in an apparent attempt to provoke a denunciation of these practices or otherwise lay the fundament for accusations of hypocrisy. Lavrov also held several damning monologues denouncing the EU’s support for Navalny and calling the EU an unreliable partner while Borrell, in the observers’ eye, stood by and watched.
The intentions behind Russia’s recent diplomatic actions seem clear. They know the EU is seriously interested in acquiring the Sputnik V vaccine, so they plan to use that as a bargaining chip to force the EU to back out of their support for Navalny. Expelling three European diplomats for their alleged attendance at a pro-Navalny demonstration – at the exact moment Borrell was in Moscow to talk about the acquisition of the Sputnik V vaccine – was their method of getting that message across. Russia is simply making the most of its current position of strength. As long as Europe's COVID-19 vaccine stockpile shortages persist, the Kremlin and their Sputnik V vaccine are a geopolitical player that is hard to ignore.
Borrell faced significant backlash when he returned from his trip to Moscow. Several MEP's scolded him for his weak performance, while others even called for his resignation. Germany, Poland and Sweden reacted to their diplomats' expulsion by expelling three Russian diplomats in return, but it seems unlikely the EU will leave it at that. Borrell himself has also changed his tone significantly since his return and now proposes that EU members impose new sanctions on Russia.
With the EU is currently unwilling to back out of their support for Navalny in exchange for the Russian vaccine and the potential of new sanctions for Russia looming on the horizon, it seems very likely that Russian-European diplomatic relations will remain tense for the time being.
The question remains what Russia’s exact response to the EU’s refusal to back down will be. As pro-Navalny demonstrations continue across Russia, the recent diplomatic expulsions may be a sign of more to come. However, Russia also has much to gain by supplying Europe with the Sputnik V vaccine, even when the EU does not rescind its support for Navalny. It would allow them to present themselves as the ‘saviours of Europe’ in their ongoing propaganda war while also generating much income through vaccine sales.
In any case, the fact that their diplomatic display at the Moscow meeting instigated significant internal uproar in the European Parliament, and damaged the EU’s image internationally, is not an undesirable preliminary outcome for Russia.
This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.
For source references, please download the PDF version.
About the Author:
Ruben Pfeijffer is a graduated anthropologist who currently follows the MA program Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. While working on his bachelor thesis in the Netherlands during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ruben gained experience with conducting ethnographic research under the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and has learned to be adaptable with his research methods.