Tense political relations with Europe have come into sharp focus in Russian domestic debates, forcing a sudden backtrack. The trigger to the anxiety was the recent (February 4–6) visit to Moscow of Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, which could have been an important step in restoring dialogue but instead became a catalyst of discord. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov humiliated Borrell by denouncing the EU as an “unreliable partner”; and to add insult to injury, Russia chose that time to expel diplomats from EU members Germany, Poland and Sweden (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, February 9; see EDM, February 11). A score of Russian pundits rushed to praise this toughness, asserting the Europeans were taught a lesson about interfering in Russia’s internal affairs (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 9). Lavrov sought to reinforce the message and stated that Moscow was ready to break off relations with Brussels (RIA Novosti, February 12).
That announcement, however, turned out to be a demarche too far, and the Kremlin immediately issued a “clarification,” confirming its commitment to dialogue with the European bloc and promising that Moscow would not be the first to sever mutual ties (Izvestia, February 12). Another group of pundits quickly explained that relations with EU institutions would continue across a broad range of issues, from natural gas exports to the nuclear deal with Iran; Russia was simply refusing to listen to the Europeans’ “lectures” on human rights (Kommersant, February 12).
This odd turnaround reveals that the initial threat by Lavrov was little more than a bluff, and Russia will not respond to Europe’s highly probable new sanctions by cutting remaining political ties (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 9). Lavrov keenly understands that this decision—apparently taken by President Vladimir Putin himself—may go against the Kremlin leader’s personal preferences, yet it was underpinned by a sober assessment of the Russian interests at stake. For the security services (siloviki), which have brutally suppressed the opposition’s street protests, a tough confrontation with external enemies might, indeed, seem natural. But for the oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle, as well as for the majority of Russia’s business and bureaucratic elites, an escalation of quarrels with the West is undesirable (Moscow Echo, February 13). This discord among close Kremlin loyalists is reflected in the public discussion around the recurrent juxtapositions of a “decadent” Europe on the one hand and a Russia ostensibly united around “healthy” conservative values on the other hand (Novaya Gazeta, February 12). It is not only the liberal intelligentsia that rejects and ridicules such quasi-ideological musings (Novaya Gazeta, February 10). Despite increased scrutiny of financial flows in and out of Russia, the majority of the beneficiaries of Putin’s regime continue to evacuate their large and small fortunes to Europe; and uncensored exchanges posted to online social networks further reflect such “unpatriotic” behavior (Svoboda.org, February 11).
Russians may not believe that Western sanctions can force a change in the increasingly repressive practices of their predatory regime, but they are not inclined to fully absorb the “besieged fortress” narratives that justify Moscow’s persecutions of so-called “foreign agents” (Gazeta.ru, February 10). The exposure of mind-boggling corruption in Putin’s court by Alexei Navalny, who even behind bars remains a major political force, has accelerated the erosion of Putin’s support base and curtailed the reach of official propaganda (Newsru.com, February 11). The government is secretively preparing a package of social support measures in order to mitigate the deepening discontent. But this uncharacteristic generosity is unlikely to significantly restore the much-diminished public trust in the purpose and rationality of state policies (RBC, February 8).
Every tactical zigzag in the Kremlin’s inherently opportunistic foreign policy undercuts this trust still further. Even the authorities’ denouncement as a “Western provocation” of the show of solidarity with Navalny, in which supporters raised lit-up smartphones on the evening of St. Valentine’s Day, backfired as a pathetic overreaction (Znak.com, February 12). The attempt to blackmail the EU by threatening to suspend relations was, most probably, aimed at preempting closer coordination between Europe and the United States on adopting fresh punishing measures—particularly in light of US President Joseph Biden’s promise to “make Russia pay” (Republic.ru, February 11). The Kremlin is worried that the reinvigoration of Transatlantic ties will not only reverse the previous US administration’s pledge to partially withdraw its troops from Germany but also sustain the momentum to increase defense expenditures in the “frontline” European states (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 8). The backpedaling on Lavrov’s threat was, therefore, aimed at preserving what influence Russia has left among Europe’s right-wing populists and left-leaning pacifists (Rosbalt, February 12).
Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defense refused to partake in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) latest traditional seminar on military doctrines (Kommersant, February 13). Moscow finds it more gratifying to announce new acquisitions of hypersonic missiles or to speculate about preventive strikes on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) than to reiterate the defensive character of its military preparations (Izvestia, February 5; see EDM, February 11). What is unusual in this round of power demonstrations vis-à-vis Europe is the absence of any declarations regarding the expansion of military ties with China. Russia attentively monitors the course of the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US, and it is wary of being dragged into the conflict if no benefits come from bandwagoning with Beijing (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, February 11). Moscow-based experts surmise that the US’s new China strategy might become more firm and predictable, but China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy could translate into assertive and provocative military steps (Russiancouncil.ru, February 12).
The combination of assertive posturing and conciliatory “clarifications” clearly fails to promote Russia’s influence in Europe. Nonetheless, Putin seems unaware of this underperformance. The Kremlin leader’s belief in his ability to change reality by producing alternative narratives remains undiminished. For his European counterparts, however, the sequence of blatant denials of many crimes proven beyond reasonable doubt—from the downing of Malaysian Flight 17 over Donbas in 2014 to Navalny’s poisoning by the nerve agent Novichok in 2020—makes it impossible to accept Putin’s word. And with international trust in him destroyed beyond repair, he has effectively become a liability for Russian foreign policy; while the cracks in his domestic support base further aggravate this weakness. The Kremlin keeps oscillating between shallow demonstrations of supreme confidence and panicky disproportional responses to Western demands for good governance. However, neither approach strengthens Putin’s authority or reverses the growing scorn among Russia’s discontented elites.