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27th Feb 2024

EU belittles Russia's Lavrov on way to Skopje talks

  • Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (l) mocked EU top diplomat Josep Borrell (r) at a meeting in Moscow in 2021 (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
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Europe's top diplomat won't meet Russia's foreign minister in Skopje, even though the Russian is getting special permits to bypass EU sanctions to reach there .

"I have a certain experience of discussions with Mr Lavrov in difficult circumstances," said EU foreign-relations chief Josep Borrell in Brussels on Tuesday (28 November), speaking of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

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  • Kyiv: Russia has targeted civilian buildings and infrastructure in Ukraine (Photo: Emilio Morenatti)

Borrell was alluding to a notorious episode in 2021 when Lavrov invited him to the Kremlin, only to belittle and insult the EU envoy.

But this time, the EU diplomat said he "won't have time" to meet Lavrov due to his own busy agenda, in what amounted to a snub.

Lavrov is going to North Macedonia to take part in a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a Cold War-era intergovernmental body, on Thursday.

The 73-year old used to be a highly-courted diplomat, despite the Russian regime's estrangement from the West.

But the EU put him on a visa-ban list after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and these days he is known for just repeating Russia's increasingly bizarre propaganda — for instance, that German politicians have "Nazi genes".

EU visa-bans allow exemptions for attendance to multilateral events.

This still meant Bulgaria had to grant Lavrov's plane a special permit to cross its airspace. North Macedonia, a Nato member, is also aligned with EU sanctions.

And in a further slight to his dignity, he might have to rethink who he brings with him from Moscow to Skopje if he wants to get through.

"This permit does not apply to members of his [Lavrov's] delegation, who are also persons subject to EU sanctions, as explicitly stated in the relevant note from Bulgaria," Bulgaria's foreign ministry has said.

The OSCE's Lavrov invitation also prompted a boycott of Skopje by Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

"It will only provide Russia with yet another propaganda opportunity," they said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

And it "risks legitimising aggressor Russia as a rightful member of our community of free nations, trivialising the atrocious crimes Russia has been committing", they added.

Borrell said he was going to Skopje to "counter the views of Russia". "I didn't want the EU seat to be empty," he said.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken is also going and also not meeting Lavrov.

But the Russian said on Tuesday that some Western ministers had reached out to him for bilateral talks, without naming names.

The OSCE has 57 members. The most Russia-friendly Western countries going to Skopje are Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia. France has also favoured high-level Kremlin talks in the recent past.

Pressure, fatigue

Borrell spoke in Brussels on Tuesday alongside Ukraine's foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.

The EU diplomat said he did not sense any "fatigue" among Western leaders in continuing to arm and fund Kyiv.

He also praised Ukraine for having "pushed out" the Russian navy from its Black Sea waters and for having "put their foot on the other side of the Dniepro River" — a Russian-held line in south-east Ukraine.

Kuleba said he did not feel any "pressure" from the West to hold peace talks with Moscow and praised the EU's upcoming 12th round of Russia sanctions.

They spoke one day after Russia unveiled a massive hike in defence spending for 2024 — a year in which Russian people will see defence and security gobble up 40 percent of their national budget.

But if Russia's plans indicated it was preparing for a long conflict, then Western support for Ukraine "will not falter", Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg also said in Brussels on Tuesday.

Finland closed its huge frontier with Russia the same day on grounds Russia was waving through irregular migrants in order to harass Finnish border guards.

And Stoltenberg said: "Russia is now using migration as yet another instrument of pressure on Nato allies — they won't succeed".

"I'm absolutely confident Finland can manage this and made the right decision about controlling their borders," he said.

"There has been no request for an increased Nato presence [in Finland]," he added.

False equivalence?

Meanwhile, part of Lavrov's message in Skopje will likely be that the West is morally bankrupt because it didn't stop Israel from bombing Gaza.

The line is designed to appeal to southern countries by imputing that Western leaders don't care about Arabs or Muslims the way they do about white people in Ukraine.

"Racism and neo-Nazism have become almost the official ideology of the Western ruling elites," said Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.

But Nato's Stoltenberg said Gaza wasn't like Ukraine, because Israel's bombardment of Gaza came in reaction to a dramatic Palestinian terrorist attack, while Russia's bombardment of Ukraine was a war of pure aggression.

"The situations in Gaza and Ukraine are very different in many ways — Ukraine posed no threat to Russia, Ukraine never attacked Russia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was an unprovoked invasion," he said.

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