EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is due to begin a three-day visit to Moscow on February 4 amid strong criticism from Western countries over the jailing of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and a crackdown on protesters.
Russia’s treatment of Navalny, whose arrest and imprisonment sparked thousands of people across Russia to demonstrate, and the crackdown on those demonstrations are the topics expected to dominate Borrell’s talks with Russian officials.
Borrell insists he will deliver “clear messages” to the Kremlin during the visit, the first to Russia by a top EU envoy since 2017.
“It is when things are not going well that you must engage,” he said earlier this week.
Moscow has ignored calls to release Navalny, who on February 2 was sentenced to jail for almost three years for violating the terms of parole while recovering in Germany from a nerve-agent poisoning in August that the Kremlin critic accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 3 accused the West of “going overboard” in its reaction to the ruling.
“The hysterics that we’ve heard over the judicial proceedings in Navalny’s case is definitely going overboard,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by TASS.
The Kremlin already has made clear where it stands on any effort to pressure Moscow into freeing Navalny.
Moscow stands “ready to do everything” to develop ties with Brussels, but the Kremlin is “not ready to listen to advice” on the issue of Navalny, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Borrell, for his part, put Moscow on notice in a statement ahead of his visit, saying the EU would discuss “implications and possible further action” at an upcoming foreign ministers meeting.
European officials previously said they would wait for the court decision to make any move, including further sanctions on top of those imposed following Navalny’s poisoning.
Calls are growing for the EU to boost travel bans and asset freezes it slapped on six Russian officials and one entity in October over the poisoning of Navalny.
Relations between the European Union and Russia deteriorated over Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and its ongoing support to separatists in eastern Ukraine. There are other concerns about its involvement in Belarus and conflicts in Syria, Libya, and other countries.