What Javier Solana told us. I met him in the early 1990s when he was Foreign Minister of Spain and the story I heard from him took place exactly in those years. As he spoke, he was smiling, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. I claim I will never again experience what I had experienced then, while he smiled in his characteristic way.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin received three European foreign ministers, including Solana, and the Speaker of the European Parliament. Before the beginning of the conversation, he solemnly handed them special, president’s pens, asking them to use them to record his messages intended for European governments. Of course, it was known that the Russian president would not refuse a glass of drink if offered one, and it seemed to them that he was not very determined in trying to refuse a drink that day. Yeltsin was cheerful that afternoon and he talked a lot, while ministers were unsuccessfully trying to take notes. One of them, convinced that something was wrong with his pen, kept, however, writing something in the air, while the other three exchanged meaningful glances. It was clear that the pens were unusable. That’s why they couldn’t write. Yeltsin laughed at them, teaching them that in Moscow one should not believe everything they hear, much less believe what one is promised before arriving that they would be able to hear. Then everyone smiled a little, in accordance with good diplomatic customs, and used their own pens. President Yeltsin could not hide his joy over the fact that he had deceived them so successfully. However, it was a completely different time, while, today, no one laughs or smiles anymore. On February 4, 2021, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, travelled to Moscow. It was not entirely clear for what reasons he decided for such a diplomatically uncertain visit at the time of the new confrontations between the Russian authorities and the opposition, because his path was essentially doomed to fail in advance. The information and analyses prepared by his associates were bad and missed the target. They were based on the assessment that Moscow should be offered new types of European cooperation in economic projects and political issues in fields where the EU and Russia have a common interest. That Borell must praise the Russian vaccine against the pandemic, Sputnik V, and stress that the EU does not intend to introduce new types of sanctions just because of repeated violations of human rights.
On Friday, February 5, all good intentions failed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov removed Borrell’s clothes and left him naked in the cold. Not literally, of course, but it looked even worse. First, during the lunch, his assistants brought him a just published statement that Russia had expelled three European diplomats, because they participated as observers in demonstrations in support of Alexei Navalny. He was then told that he would not have an opportunity to visit Navalny in prison because he failed to submit the required evidence of paid administrative fees with the competent court to the officer in charge of receiving requests of that kind. When nothing was clear to Borell anymore, Lavrov told him that, in Russia, only Russian authorities and President Putin could decide about whether anyone’s human rights were violated and that they were not interested in European assessments in that regard. He was also told that the EU should refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the Balkan states and even more in the problems of former Soviet states.
However, it did not end there, two more announcements followed. First, that Russia views the EU as an unreliable partner, primarily because of the arrogant behaviour of Germany and France, and second, that Moscow is ready to cut off contacts if Brussels inquires too much about issues they should not deal with, or even introduces new measures against Russia. After that, Borell could only extend his hand and quit the visit. However, he just kept silent and returned home only on Sunday, February 7. In his note, he wrote that the Russian authorities connect the economy, the army and political control, and thus prevent democracy and the rule of law. He announced the introduction of new sanctions against Russia in the European Parliament, and convened a meeting of foreign ministers of European countries next Monday, February 22.
Moscow certainly knows that they have allies in European countries who will mitigate all those measures that could seriously harm Putin’s rule. Both due to great individual economic interests and because of special political sympathies. Therefore, we can assume that with the new sanctions, some other Russian capital owners will be banned from entering the EU and that their millions or billions will be kept in European banks, temporarily frozen. Painful, yet insignificant for authorities in Moscow.
Their goal elsewhere is even bigger. Namely, Borell assessed that Russia wanted to cause division in the European Union. That thesis would not be very disturbing, because it is not quite new. Whereby, this time, they have a new tool they can use to persuade certain European heads of states. A tool which, in some countries may help achieve a new election victory and win a new mandate and rule. And that is why it is attractive.
Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenković already considered the offered gift. He was delighted. After that, it was announced in Zagreb that they would receive a million doses of Sputnik V vaccine and that massive vaccination would be launched. They already determined locations and reserved large sports halls. Russia’s Ambassador in Zagreb Andrey Nesterko confirmed that the Croatian order of the vaccine was awaited and that the vaccine would by delivered by month’s end. Minister of Health Vili Beroš, thanks to the unambiguous delight of the Prime Minister of Croatia provided for the Russian vaccine to be bought even without the required approval of the European Medicines Agency. Various experts who are supposed to take care of the technical and financial details have already gathered. Both in Zagreb and Moscow. But, then, only one day later, on Wednesday, February 17, literally everything changed.
Plenković convened a meeting of the ruling party’s leadership. He received a message he could not ignore. He acted accordingly. They decided for Croatia not to buy Sputnik V vaccine unless it received an approval of the European Agency, for the reason that they were not willing to assume responsibility for using an unverified medicine. Plenković also revealed that Moscow had not yet launched the main procedure for obtaining approval for the vaccine in European market, meaning they offered the vaccine for the purpose of testing in states that would dare to buy it regardless of the provisions of Europe’s common health policy and ignoring the European institutions. That they sought the soft underbelly of the European Union. However, Borell’s unfortunate visit to Moscow may not have been a complete disaster. We have learnt, at least, that the Russian Government has a new tool for softening positions of certain European countries. Sputnik V vaccine.