EU Foreign ministers decided not to sanction Moscow over the arrest of Aleksandr Navalny and his over 3,000 supporters on 25 January. The bloc condemned Russia, but no "concrete proposals [of sanctions were put] on the table,” said EU High Representative, Joseph Borrell.

Instead, the EU top diplomat announced he would visit Moscow next week, to discuss the current situation and the strategic relations with Russia, which will be addressed by EU leaders in March. The current EU approach towards Russia is very different from last September, in the aftermath of Navalny's poisoning, when several member countries declared themselves shocked – and the EU imposed sanctions. Now, with the pandemic hitting Europe hard, priorities have changed, as the Russian vaccine SPUTNIK V is seen as a potential solution to overcoming delayed supplies.

Also the German North Stream 2 gas pipeline – whose completion is at risk due to European Parliament opposition and US sanctions – might have pushed Brussels to be conciliatory towards Moscow.

Reconciliation and Distancing

The bloc confirmed improved relationships with Turkey, after a turbulent 2020 which saw Ankara engaged in a hydrocarbon dispute with Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean and the EU threatening sanctions. "The irritants that had poisoned life during last summer and autumn have been stopped,” Borrell commented, announcing the kickoff of Ankara-Athens bilateral exploratory talks.

It is not only the EU that can breathe a sign of relief, but also NATO. In recent months, Ankara caused significant headaches to both with its controversial behaviour, not only locally, but also in Libya and with French vessels.

Meanwhile, EU relations with the UK are not improving after London refused to grant diplomatic status to the EU mission in London last week. London’s move is not a “friendly signal,” an upset Borrell stated. Yet the UK left the bloc without agreements on defence and security, and this last decision now worries Brussels.

Several other issues were discussed by ministers, in the first Council of a year marked by several challenges. Ministers launched the first EU pilot mission – the Coordinated Maritime Presence concept – in the Gulf of Guinea, where piracy undermines maritime security. EU naval missions are usually less problematic as regards agreement, and have high success potential.

Other issues included cooperation with Japan, which is fruitful and can be also interpreted as helping to contain a China more and more assertive in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, and the Green Deal's external dimension.

Caterina Tani in Brussels for MON

EU High Representative Joseph Borrell after this week’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting. (Photo: European Council)

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