Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on February 12 that Moscow is ready to sever relations with the EU if sanctions are imposed that threaten its economy in connection with the jailing of anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny last month.
"We do not want to isolate ourselves from international life, but we have to be ready for it," Lavrov said during a TV interview.
"We assume that we are ready [to break relations] if we see again – as we have often felt – that in some areas sanctions are imposed, creating threats to our economy, including in the most acute spheres,” Lavrov added.
The comments after a meeting last week between Lavrov and The European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, who was slated by observers for failing to hold Russia to account for the arrest and jailing of Navalny.
Lavrov’s comments confirm bne IntelliNews' analysis of the meeting “Kremlin lays out new rules of the game for post-Trump relations,” that Russia used the meeting, and the humiliation of Borrell, to send a very clear message that it was taking a new hard line with the West. Lavrov has since indicated that while Russia is prepared to negotiate with the West over things like arms control deals, it is not prepared to accept a dual policy where threats of sanctions are made in parallel.
After the Borrell visit Lavrov told the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a tweet that an offer to sign a commitment to nuclear arms reduction agreement was “still on the table” but explicitly linked that to a second commitment to “not interfere in each other's domestic affairs,” which must be signed in tandem.
Lavrov’s statement on February 12 is a further clarification of this new hard line. The Kremlin is now categorically rejecting any pressure from the West over the Navalny affair, or anything it considers to be domestic issues, and is prepared to break off diplomatic relations with the EU if any sanctions are imposed. However, Russia’s long-standing foreign minister left some room for purely symbolic sanctions to be imposed as part of a face-saving exercise for the EU.
"We don't want to isolate ourselves from international life, but we have to be ready for it. You want peace – get ready for war," Lavrov said.
Lavrov called the EU "an unreliable partner" during his joint press conference with Borrell and in effect set the bar for co-operation between Europe and Russia at zero. Russia’s new line is that it willing to work with the West, but only on its own terms and only if there are no more attempts to exert pressure on the Kremlin through the use of sanctions.
The Russian foreign ministry also announced the expulsion of three diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden in the midst of the joint press conference in an extremely aggressive move.
According to the EU, Russia has been violating Navalny’s human rights: "I warned the EU's head of diplomacy that if he would present this topic at a press conference in such an angle, I would give an example in response of the Catalans sentenced to 12 years and more in prison for participating in the organisation of the referendum on Catalonia's independence," said the minister.
According to Lavrov, "individual EU member states" had assured Russia that they "were against the sanctions" because "they realised that this would lead to nothing." Some countries like Cyprus are dependent on Russian business and blocked sanctions on Belarus last summer under pressure from Moscow. Other countries like Serbia and Hungary are openly reaching out to Russia to co-operate, while others such as Italy have taken a milder position than hardliners like Poland and the Baltic States.
New sanctions on Russia by the EU are dwindling and will be made less likely following Lavrov’s statement. Borrell already said during his visit to Moscow that “not one” EU member state had proposed new sanctions on Russia. While that might be technically true, both Poland and the Baltic States have already openly called for fresh sanctions.