BRUSSELS — European Union officials on Monday pondered the future of the bloc's troubled relations with Russia amid deep concern that their large eastern neighbor sees democracy as a threat and wants to distance itself further from the EU.
The state of ties took a turn for the worse on Friday after Russia said that it was expelling diplomats from Sweden, Poland and Germany, accusing them of attending a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most high-profile political foe.
Beyond its diplomatic repercussions, the decision was as a slap in the face for the EU because it came as the 27-nation bloc's top diplomat — foreign policy chief Josep Borrell — was meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Borrell said he learned about the move on social media.
"The messages sent by Russian authorities during this visit confirmed that Europe and Russia are drifting apart," Borrell wrote in a blog on his return to Brussels. "It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat."
He said the trip left him "with deep concerns over the perspectives of development of Russian society and Russia's geostrategic choices," and the expulsions, which he requested be dropped, "indicate that the Russian authorities did not want to seize this opportunity to have a more constructive dialogue."
Some EU lawmakers criticized Borrell for going, or for not insisting on visiting Navalny, who was arrested in January when he returned to Moscow after spending months in Germany recovering from a poisoning in Russia with what experts say was the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.
Borrell tried to arrange a prison meeting through Lavrov, but was told to take it up with the courts.
"If you are familiar with the court procedures in Russia, you will know that it would take much more time than the duration of the visit," Borrell's spokesman, Peter Stano, said Monday.
Ultimately, the trip was never uniquely about Navalny. Russia is a major trading partner and the EU depends on the country for natural gas. It's also a key player in talks on curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions and has a central role in conflicts that impact on European interests, like those in Syria and Ukraine.
Borrell's aim was to "deliver firm messages" on the broad state of EU-Russia ties as much as on the imprisonment of Navalny, Stano said. EU foreign ministers will debate the issue on Feb. 22 in preparation for the bloc's leaders to weigh Europe's Russia strategy at a summit on March 25-26.
But the real challenge is overcoming the vast divisions between countries on how to approach Russia.
EU heavyweight Germany has strong economic interests there, notably the NordStream 2 undersea pipeline project, and German and other ambassadors are reluctant to rapidly wade into any sanctions battle over Navalny.
Despite calls for such punitive measures, particularly among some of Russia's close but small EU neighbors like Lithuania, Borrell said Friday that no country has officially tabled any proposals on who or what organizations to hit with sanctions.