The EU’s top diplomat on Friday called for the bloc to turn to Russia to make up its shortfall in vaccine supplies in a humiliating visit to Moscow that drew a sharp rebuke from the United States.
Josep Borell was accused of “whitewashing” Vladimir Putin’s regime after failing to free jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny after a controversial visit that ended with expulsion of three European diplomats.
Officials in the US administration believed Mr Borrell got “played” by the Russians.
They regarded his visit as “awkward” and unnecessary, and felt he should have coordinated better with Washington, especially with the EU-US relations in need of repair and a united front against Moscow vital.
In the EU’s latest blunder, the foreign affairs chief urged the independent European Medicines Authority (EMA) to press ahead with the authorisation of the Sputnik jab so it could make up the shortfall in supplies to the bloc.
The gaffe came after Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, Friday compared Brexit Britain to a “speedboat” in securing coronavirus vaccines, while likening the EU, which negotiated supplies as a bloc, to a slower “tanker”.
For the first time, she also publicly took personal responsibility for threatening to impose a hard border on the island of Ireland during a row over vaccines supplies last Friday.
Russia expelled three diplomats from EU members Germany, Poland and Sweden for observing January protests calling for Mr Navalny’s release, which the EU has demanded, after Mr Borrell held a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said the expulsions proved the Russian government was “turning its back on international law”. France condemned the move while Germany, Poland and Sweden said they could retaliate.
“I take the floor to just congratulate Russia for this success, it’s good news for the whole mankind because it means we are going to have more tools to face the pandemic,” Mr Borrell said earlier in Moscow.
“It will be good news because as you know we are facing a shortage of vaccines and if there is another course of supply, that is welcome,” he told reporters after Mr Navalny was jailed for two years and eight months on fraud charges on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Mr Navalny was back in court on separate charges of defaming a Second World War veteran, which could see him jailed for an additional two years.
The EU’s foreign affairs chief, who pressed ahead with the meeting despite misgivings from some EU member states was under pressure to at least meet Mr Navalny.
There are international moves to impose sanctions on Russia for the jailing of Mr Navalny, which took place after he narrowly survived an August poisoning attempt at the hands of Russian officials. He was arrested on his return home from Germany after recovering.
US President Joe Biden on Thursday said America will no longer be “rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions” and his officials said they would take action over Mr Navalny.
A former senior US national security official for Barack Obama, with links to Mr Biden’s state department, told The Daily Telegraph: “The optics are not good to have the EU’s high representative in Moscow as Navalny is in a glass cage.
“It was awkward. Borrell should not have gone to Moscow in the absence of securing some kind of substantial deliverable in advance, and as far as we can tell there was no deliverable […] It does look like the Russians played Borrell.”
Bob Seely, Tory vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Russia, said: “I don’t know if this is a quid quo pro, but I do think it’s surprisingly uncomfortable for a very senior EU leader to be going to Moscow the week of one of its most high profile show trials in the past 15 years.
“It is bizarre, but it is also not right. Yes the EU has messed up its vaccine policy but to eject your value system straight out of the window so quickly? It’s pretty shocking.”
MEP Sandra Kalniete, a former Latvian foreign minister and EU commissioner, said Mr Borrell had “whitewashed Putin’s regime”.
The EU already has sanctions in place against Moscow for the chemical weapons attack on Mr Navalny and the illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The Spanish diplomat’s embarrassment was compounded when Mr Lavrov accused the EU of being an “unreliable partner” for considering further sanctions.
He suggested German Chancellor Angela Merkel was lying when she accused Vladimir Putin of being behind the assassination attempt.
An EU diplomat told The Telegraph, “It was a bad day for the EU. Unfortunately, it was not a good performance by Mr Borrell. He was unprepared. Mr Lavrov played by his own rules and got everything he wanted.”
Mr Borrell said he had told Mr Lavrov to release Mr Navalny and investigate his poisoning in August. “Over the last years our relationship has been marked by fundamental differences and lack of trust,” he said on the first visit to Russia by a senior envoy since 2017.
Mr Lavrov criticised the EU for alleged human rights abuses in Latvia and said that Brussels and Moscow were united in their criticism of the US blockade of Cuba after Mr Borrell admitted the bloc was against the blockade.
Mrs Merkel said Germany was prepared to continue sanctions and suggested Berlin would retaliate for the expulsion of its diplomat.
She said it was a “diplomatic duty” to keep open channels of communication with Moscow in a press conference with Emmanuel Macron, who has also called for continued dialogue.
“With regards to the Navalny affair, I condemn with the greatest firmness from start to finish what has happened” Mr Macron said on Friday.
Poland summoned Russia’s ambassador and said it would take “appropriate action”. Sweden warned that it reserved the right “to an appropriate response”.