“When Russia insults the high representative of the European Union, it is insulting all Europeans.”
A couple of weeks ago, as reported here, the co-founder and honorary president of El País, José Luis Cebrián, penned an op-ed in the newspaper titled “Defending Ukraine to the Death… of Ukrainians” in which he warned about the potentially dire consequences of the war in Ukraine for Europe’s future. As I noted in my post on that piece, Cebrián raised concerns about the real objectives of the war, the way it is being waged and the way it is subordinating the objectives of the EU project to those of the NATO military alliance.
In conclusion, Cebrián wrote:
This is not a war between Russia and Ukraine, but a proxy war between NATO and Russia. Neither of them can be absolute losers if we aspire to a lasting peace in Europe and want to prevent the conflict from spiralling into a third world war. But the voices in favour of a ceasefire do not seem to have much effect on the rulers of democratic Europe, ours included, ready as they are to defend Ukraine until the death of the last Ukrainian.
“Spawn of Satan”
In other words, even the rare voices of disquiet within European policy circles that are calling for a change of direction on the war are getting short shrift from most of the region’s rulers. Which brings us nicely to one of this week’s episodes of farcical European leadership. On Tuesday, Cadena Ser, a Spanish radio broadcaster belonging to Grupo Prisa, which also happens to be the parent group of El País, ran a story with the following bizarre headline:
Robles Lashes Out at Russia for Calling Josep Borrell a “Spawn of Satan”: “We cannot accept Threats”
Margarita Robles is Spain’s acting minister of defence and on Tuesday she gave a speech at the headquarters of SATCEN, the EU satellite coordination centre, on the outskirts of Madrid. Also in attendance was Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and a former cabinet colleague of Robles’ in the Pedro Sánchez government.
During that speech Robles brought up some of the recent incendiary comments made by Vladimir Solovyov, a prime-time Russian television presenter and pro-Putin propagandist, about Borrell. On his daily TV show Solovyov had called Borrell a litany of names including “idiot”, “enemy of the Slavs,” “enemy of the Russian people”, “little demon” and “spawn of Satan.” He also noted that Borrell, while “supposedly holding the position of quasi foreign minister of the European Union, behaves like a minister of war.” That one is true.
Solovyov also launched a verbal onslaught against Borrell’s native country of Spain, which he described as the “world’s evil” for its centuries of colonising other countries. And this, I imagine, was probably the final straw for Robles, who responded with these words:
“We cannot accept threats or insults from Russia. When Russia insults the high representative of the European Union, it is insulting all Europeans. Threats are not acceptable. Russia has to know that the European Union will continue to support Ukraine, because supporting Ukraine is supporting peace, freedom and security.”
As Cebrián said, people like Robles are willing to defend Ukraine “until the last Ukrainian.” They are also perfectly happy to use even the most insidious examples of Orwellian doublespeak, such as “war is peace”, to justify their ends.
In return for her unyielding support for Ukraine, Robles was awarded the “distinction of honour” by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence of Ukraine on Monday. The acting Minister of Defence received the medal from the Ukrainian ambassador to Spain, Serhii Pohoreltsev. Zelensky’s government also gave honours to Spain’s Secretary General of Defence Policy, Admiral Juan Francisco Fernández Núñez, and the Director General of Defence Policy, Lieutenant General Fernando López del Pozo.
Robles’ defence of Borrell is absurd for at least three reasons:
- Robles, a senior albeit acting minister of the Spanish government, was not responding to comments made by a senior official of the Russian government, but rather a Russian propagandist working for Russian state television. In other words, it wasn’t “Russia” insulting Borrell; it was a Russian TV presenter. By directly responding to Solovyov’s insults, Robles gave greater prominence to those insults while bringing the ministry she represents down to Solovyov’s level.
- Robles’ assertion that when Russia insults Borrell, Europe’s gaffe-prone chief diplomat, it is insulting all Europeans is farcical. For a start, there are tens of millions of Europeans from non-member countries who are not EU citizens and whom Borrell does not represent in any shape or form. They include millions of Russian citizens living in Western Russia. It is also arguable whether Borrell even represents EU citizens given nobody ever voted for him. In fact, Robles’ assertion is reminiscent of former US NIAID Director Anthony Fauci’s statement that “attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science”.
- It wasn’t Solovyov, or any Russian for that matter, that began this latest war of words; it was Borrell himself. Channelling his inner John McCain, he said in an interview with El País on August 19 that “the Russian economy is too small compared to the real geopolitical players.” Asked about EU relations with China, Borrell stressed that the Asian giant is not Russia: “China is a real geopolitical player, while Russia is an economic dwarf, it’s like a gas station whose owner has an atomic bomb.”
Describing Russia as an economic dwarf is not just offensive, it is plain wrong. Russia’s autarchik economy has weathered 18 months of all-out war against it from both the US, the world’s [declining] economic superpower, and the EU, the world’s largest trade bloc. It is one of the world’s biggest exporters not only of energy but all sorts of vital commodities. It also just overtook Germany to become the fifth wealthiest economy in the world and the largest in Europe on PPP (purchasing power parity) terms, and is on target to grow at a rate of around 2.5% this year, while many EU countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, are sliding into recession.
What’s more, despite 11 rounds of sanctions against Russia, Europe’s economy is still heavily dependent on the natural gas coming out of Russia’s “gas station” — only now it’s in liquefied form, which is a lot more expensive and more difficult to transport. According to a new report by Global Witness, an environmental watchdog organisation, EU member states are now buying 40% more Russian LNG, which is currently exempt from EU sanctions, than it did in 2021. Their purchases in the first seven months of this year are actually slightly higher than they were during the same period of last year.
In fact, three EU countries were among the top five biggest clients of Russian LNG in the first seven months of this year: Spain, in second place after China, Belgium in third and France in fifth (after Japan). These three countries have become busy destinations for LNG carriers, whose supplies are unloaded onto sophisticated terminals and warmed backed into gaseous form and sent to power plants in countries like the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Finland, Italy and Sweden.
“Envy and Impotence”
Borrell’s provocative comments from the El País interview are not mentioned in any of the three Spanish articles I have read on Robles’ speech, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they would have added some much-needed context to the diplomatic spat. But the comments were certainly picked up by senior Russian officials.
Hours after the El País interview aired, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described Borrell’s statements as the product of “envy and impotence”, adding that “the EU is bankrupt” and ruined itself when it stopped buying quality [Russian] fuel at an affordable price. In response to the “atomic bomb” comment, Zakharova said that only one EU country has nuclear weapons, while the others have not been able to produce them. “There is nothing to be proud of, which is why they are so angry. So everything Borrell said is the result of envy and helplessness,” concluded Maria Zakharova.
For his part, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the EU’s chief diplomat’s racist worldview is what prevents him and other Western leaders from accepting the reality of a nascent multipolar world. “Today’s West is steered by people like Josep Borrell who divide the world into a blooming ‘garden’ and ‘the jungle,’ where the latter clearly applies to most of humanity.” said Lavrov. “I dare say, this racist worldview certainly prevents them from accepting the onset of multipolarity.”
This is not Lavrov’s first clash with Borrell. That came in early February 2021, a full year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when the EU’s chief diplomat visited Moscow with the ostensible goal of getting EU-Russia relations back on track after years of ratcheting tensions. It was Borrell’s first (and quote possibly last) visit to the Kremlin and the first of any EU diplomat since 2017. As I reported for NC at the time, it was a diplomatic disaster:
Borrell’s big mistake was to go all the way to Moscow to lambaste the Putin government for its rough treatment of Navalny, which he could have done from the comfort of his own office in Brussels. That rough treatment includes allegedly trying to poison Navalny with a Novichok-type nerve agent. That was in August . After apparently taking ill on an internal flight in Russia, Navalny was taken to Germany, where he spent five months recovering. On January 17 , he returned to Russia and was duly arrested for violating parole from a 2014 sentence for embezzlement. Last week, the court sentenced him to two years and eight months in a prison colony.
Borrell called for Navalny’s release and an investigation into his poisoning, neither of which went down well with his hosts. Nor did his allusions to the rule of law, international human rights and respect for the sovereignty of other nations.
The Russian Federation’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by lashing Brussels for its own failings. He called the EU “unreliable” and accused Germany and France of arrogance in their dealings with Russia. Then, he delivered the coup de grace. He accused Brussels of double standards over Spain’s imprisonment of Catalan separatists. And Borrell’s glass house began to shatter…
After the press conference Russia expelled three EU diplomats, from Germany, Poland and Sweden, for allegedly participating in protests against Navalni’s imprisonment. Germany, Poland and Sweden responded in kind, by expelling three Russian diplomats from their territory. Rather than getting EU-Moscow relations back on track, Borrell’s visit drove them to a new low, which will no doubt delight hawks in Washington and NATO.
On his return to Brussels, Borrell wrote on his EU blog that his visit had confirmed that “Europe and Russia are drifting apart.” German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said his visit was “perhaps the biggest shambles” in the EU’s short-lived history of international diplomacy. That, of course, was before Borrell’s infamous speech at the European Diplomatic Academy last October in which he compared Europe to a garden and “most of the rest of the world” to a dark, invading jungle.
Borrell may have apologised for making that statement but the damage had already been done. And that damage was worldwide. With Borrell in charge of EU diplomacy, not only is the EU doing many things badly on the international stage, mainly due to its subordination to the interests of NATO (and by extension, the US); it is also saying things badly. And in the world of foreign relations that matters a lot, especially if Europe wants to maintain any semblance of soft power in the gradually emerging multipolar world.