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EU-Russia Tensions Flare in Diplomatic Tit-for-Tat

EU member states took action on Monday following a disastrous trip to Moscow by the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks during press conference following a meeting with EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs at the EU headquarters, in Brussels, on January 25, 2021.
European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks during press conference following a meeting with EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs at the EU headquarters, in Brussels, on January 25, 2021. JOHN THYS/POOL/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: European Union countries expel three Russian diplomats, Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial begins, and Colombia grants temporary legal status to Venezuelan refugees. 

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: European Union countries expel three Russian diplomats, Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial begins, and Colombia grants temporary legal status to Venezuelan refugees. 

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


EU Countries Expel Russians in Diplomatic Tit-for-Tat

Relations between the European Union and Russia reached a new low on Monday as three EU countries expelled one Russian diplomat each in a tit-for-tat move.

On Friday, Russia barred three EU diplomats—one each from Germany, Sweden, and Poland—for alleged involvement in protests supporting Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. The EU states maintain their staff were merely observing the protests, in line with internationally-recognized diplomatic convention.

Europe’s retaliation comes after EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell completed a three-day visit to the country that went from bad to worse.

Declaring before the trip that the EU “cannot say: ‘I don’t like you, I will stay in my corner’,” to rival countries, Borrell was pushed to the point of humiliation by his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. At a joint press conference, Lavrov accused the EU of being an “unreliable partner,” and cited the detention of Catalan leaders by Borrell’s native Spain as an example of the EU double standard on human rights.

The trip truly went sour once Borrell found out Friday, via social media, of the expulsion of the three EU diplomats while still in talks with Lavrov.

Drifting. In a blog post written after the trip, Borrell departed from diplomatic euphemisms in his assessment, stating that the two powers were “drifting apart.”

“It seems that Russia is progressively disconnecting itself from Europe and looking at democratic values as an existential threat,” Borrell wrote.

Although the spat is unlikely to completely derail cooperation on certain issues (especially now that Europe’s botched vaccine procurement strategy means they may be in need of Russia’s highly effective Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine), the episode may serve to harden public opinion in the bloc against Russia and drive the EU to align its policy more closely with the United States.

Arctic bombers. What U.S. policy toward Russia might entail came into focus on Monday, as CNN reported that the U.S. Air Force would soon deploy B-1 bombers to Norway for the first time, taking on missions that would bring it close to Russia’s northwestern border.

Gas troubles. The likelihood of a U.S.-EU lockstep on Russia policy is tempered by energy issues in Europe’s largest economy. Despite U.S. objections, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is on track to bring Russian gas to Germany, which, as Constanze Stelzenmüller writes in Foreign Policy, is one of three German controversies currently stymying U.S.-EU harmony.


What We’re Following Today

Myanmar protests. Pro-democracy protests in Myanmar have erupted once again as residents defy new orders, handed down on Monday night, banning mass gatherings in the country’s largest cities. The fourth day of demonstrations comes after state television acknowledged the public unrest for the first time, warning residents that such acts were destabilizing the country. In a televised speech, coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing repeated his unfounded claim that November’s elections showed widespread voter fraud and promised to hold new elections in a year.

Trump’s impeachment trial. The U.S. Senate opens the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump today in Washington. As two-thirds of the Senate must vote in favor of conviction, Democrats face an uphill battle to convince Republican senators to vote against Trump, who remains extremely popular with the Republican base. The trial is expected to continue into next week.

Venezuela’s exodus. Colombia is to grant temporary legal status to the more than 1.7 million Venezuelans who have taken refuge in the country. Under the terms announced by Colombian President Iván Duque on Monday, Venezuelans who entered Colombia without permission before Jan. 31 will be eligible for legal protections, making it easier for them to live and work in the country. Roughly 5.4 million people have left Venezuela in recent years, according to U.N. estimates.


Keep an Eye On

Netanyahu on trial. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded not guilty at the beginning of his corruption trial in Jerusalem on Monday. Netanyahu stands accused of fraud, breach of public trust, and accepting bribes—charges the Israeli leader has dismissed as a “witch-hunt.” Speaking to reporters on Monday, Netanyahu said he expected the trial to extend past the date of Israel’s general election on March 23, adding that beginning the evidentiary process before then would be seen as “clear interference.”

Haiti’s power struggle. Haiti’s opposition has named Joseph Mecene Jean Louis, a senior judge, to fill the role of interim president in a transitional government as a struggle to depose President Jovenel Moise intensifies. Moise’s detractors say that his five-year term in office is over since he was elected in 2016.

Moise—and, importantly, the U.S. government—argue his term ends a year from now, as he was not sworn in until 2017. Moise has vowed to complete his term, which is likely to include a referendum on a new Haitian constitution.


Odds and Ends

The United Arab Emirates will be the first of three countries to conclude missions to Mars this month, as the Al Amal probe descends into orbit above the planet for a 687-day monitoring project. A Chinese probe is expected to reach Mars on Wednesday, spending months in orbit before descending to the planet’s surface, making it only the second country to explore Martian soil. On Feb. 18, a U.S. rover, Perseverance, is scheduled to touch down on Mars, which would make it the ninth successful landing on the Red Planet for NASA.


That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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