EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell's visit to Moscow comes in a week that saw Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny jailed for nearly three years.
The EU's foreign affairs chief has said relations with Russia are at their lowest level because of Alexei Navalny's poisoning and subsequent imprisonment.
Josep Borrell was speaking during a three-day visit to Moscow ahead of talks with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said he was ready to discuss "any topic".
Both parties have been speaking to the media following their meeting on Friday morning.
Watch the news conference back in the video player above and refresh the page for text updates.
The visit comes amid international outrage over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who on Tuesday received a jail sentence of a further two years and eight months.
European leaders, including Borrell himself, swiftly condemned the verdict and called for Navalny's immediate release.
On Friday the Kremlin critic was in court again on a defamation charge that he has also dismissed as politically motivated.
Rule of law and human rights 'central', Borrell says
Borrell told the news conference on Friday that the meeting with Lavrov had been "frank and open" and "intense".
Brussels' chief diplomat repeated the EU's "deep concern" over the jailing of the Kremlin critic and called again for his release, as well as for an impartial investigation.
While fully respecting Russian sovereignty, "for the EU issues concerning the rule of law, human rights, the civil society and political freedom are central to a common future both for the EU and Russia," the EU's chief diplomat said.
The Kremlin dismissed Western calls for Navalny's release on Friday.
"Any hints of an ultimatum are absolutely unacceptable to us, we have already said that we won't listen to such patronising statements," spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov said, referring to an appeal from US President Joe Biden.
'No further sanctions for now'
Questioned by a reporter over the EU's stance on the Navalny case, Borrell said a "full and transparent investigation" could help clarify what happened to the opposition figure.
But he said no EU member state had proposed extra sanctions on Russia for now, and discussions would take place at a European Council summit of EU leaders in March.
Last month EU foreign ministers failed to agree on further sanctions against Russia over the detention of Alexei Navalny and his supporters.
This was despite the fact that in December the European Union agreed to establish a regime similar to the US Magnitsky Act, the aim being to allow the 27 member bloc to sanction those responsible for human rights abuses.
Areas of cooperation
EU-Russia relations have been marked by "fundamental differences and lack of trust", Borrell said, with both sides seeing each other as "a competitor and a rival rather than a partner".
The EU and Russia "can and must work together," the EU diplomat added, stressing the importance of the trading relationship.
Sergei Lavrov said he regretted that during the COVID-19 crisis, "certain forces" in the EU "took advantage of the pandemic and accused Russia of disinformation", instead of being united and showing solidarity.
The Russian foreign minister proposed an official channel to address concerns relating to disinformation wars.
Borrell congratulated Russia for its Sputnik V vaccine and said he hoped the EU regulator would soon be able to certify its efficacy. "That would be good news because we're facing shortages of vaccines" in the EU, he added.
Both diplomats proposed reinvigorating The Quartet -- comprising the UN, the US, the EU and Russia -- to promote a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
They cited several areas where the EU and Russia have agreed to cooperate: among them health, science, climate change, research, the pandemic, education, the Iran nuclear deal, Syria, Libya, instability in North Africa, and the influx of migrants into the EU.
Decade of fraught relations
Relations between the EU and Russia have been fraught over the past decade. The EU has publicly denounced the government of President Vladimir Putin on a variety of issues, such as espionage, cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, election meddling and chemical poisonings. The bloc still periodically renews its sanctions over Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But geographical proximity, commercial links and energy supply issues make the diplomatic relationship important for both sides.
"The relationship with Russia is one of the EU’s most complex," said Borrell in a statement ahead of his visit. "Recent developments only serve to further underline the need for me to visit Moscow. But beyond the issues of contention, there are also areas in which the EU and Russia do cooperate, or need to cooperate more, that require our urgent attention."
According to the European External Action Service (EEAS), Borrell plans to engage in a "wide-ranging discussion" with Lavrov and other Russian interlocutors on topics such as Ukraine, the Iran nuclear deal, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. The arrest and detention of Alexei Navalny and human rights will also be part of the agenda.
The expectations around the trip are low, given the heightened tensions following the Navalny case and the long-standing differences of opinion that EU member states have regarding Russia.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one EU diplomat told Euronews the visit has "bad timing" and said it was naïve to believe that dialogue without any bargaining chip or pre-conditions could work. The diplomat fears the EU risks losing its credibility as a global actor if Borrell comes back empty-handed.
Divisions inside the bloc were obvious during the last Foreign Affairs Council where the Baltic states, alongside Poland and Romania, asked Borrell to postpone his trip and suggested the EU should instead impose more sanctions.
On the other side of the table, countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands expressed their preference for direct diplomacy, an opinion that Borrell appears to share by moving ahead with the trip.
"The EU and Russia can start normalising relations," Urmas Paet, Estonian MEP and former foreign affairs minister, told Euronews. "For this, the ball is in the hands of [the] Russian authorities. Because it's not only the arrest of Mr Navalny and his supporters but the ongoing Russian annexation of the Crimea, the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine and so on. But of course, Mr Borrell has to be very firm to represent [the] European Union's clear positions on all these violations and international law by Russia."
In Russia, hopes for a breakthrough are equally dim. Both sides are aware that a new raft of EU sanctions could be in the pipeline.
"I do not think that under the influence of the European Union or any other external factors, the impact of sanctions, there will be changes in the position of the Russian authorities. The expectations from our Western partners are now very low in the Russian leadership," Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, told Euronews.
"Regardless of what Russia does or does not do, no one believes that this relationship can improve."
A difficult but inevitable relationship
Experts caution that, despite the recent controversies and the lingering distrust of anything coming from the Kremlin, the EU has to find a way to coexist with Russia as it is a strategically crucial neighbour. Money and business interests are central to Europe's Russia problem.
"We [the EU] suffer but also Russia suffers," Marc Franco, an honorary ambassador and senior fellow at the Egmont Institute, explained in an interview with Euronews.
"Russia suffers more because Russia needs Western capital, Western technology, cooperation with the West across a wide board. Modernisation and diversification of the Russian economy is not being particularly successful. And in order to succeed that, it's not China who is going to provide the solutions. It is Europe who can provide investment."
Russia recently scored an important victory after a study published in The Lancet said the Sputnik V vaccine has an efficacy of 91.6% against COVID-19. European countries, such as Serbia and Hungary, have ordered the jab as part of their inoculation campaigns.
The EU's sluggish vaccine roll-out, which so far depends entirely on Western companies like Pfizer and Moderna, could present Putin with a geopolitical opportunity to advance his interests and rebuild his damaged reputation.
"[The] European Union can tremendously benefit from inputs from Russia, economically, raw materials but not only raw materials. Look at the Sputnik vaccine that now is generally recognised as being very efficient. This is an area that we can all work together, with benefits for all sides," Franco added.
Concerns over human rights violations inside Russia have been for years a source of diplomatic strain. Pictures of mass arrests during pro-Navalny demonstrations have put them at the top of the agenda.
In an op-ed for Euronews, Philippe Dam, the EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, called Borrell's visit a "major event" that will be scrutinised by "the thousands of Russian citizens who are faced with new waves of repression because they stood up against corruption and injustice".
"Borrell should also make it clear that he and the EU view the attacks on Navalny and the vicious crackdown on public protests as the tip of the iceberg of Russia’s deliberate and persistent efforts to silence democratic voices with increasingly restrictive laws and politically motivated prosecutions. New draconian legislation rammed through the parliament aims to deliver a crushing blow to Russia’s already severely encumbered civil society," Dam wrote.
Federica Mogherini was the last EU foreign policy chief to visit the country, back in August 2017. During that trip, Mogherini recognised real problems between the two sides and vowed to maintain EU sanctions over Crimea's annexation.