As a result of the Kremlin’s unexpected and unexplained blacklist of 89 top EU officials, look for the relationship between Russia and the EU to sour even further.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz look at each other leaving a news conference after the talks in Moscow. Photo: AP

 For a different take read: "Russian blacklist of EU leaders is logical but counterproductive" 

Late last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry presented European Union embassies with a list of 89 officials barred from entering Russia. This caused a sensation and sharply aggravated relations between Russia and the EU. Although the list was submitted through diplomatic channels on a need-to-know basis, its contents quickly became public knowledge and provoked a strong reaction from European circles.

Retaliation swiftly followed. On June 3, it was announced that Russian Permanent Representative to the EU Vladimir Chizhov no longer had free access to the European Parliament (henceforth he will require a pass for each visit). Moreover, it was announced that the Russia-EU Parliamentary Cooperation Committee was suspended.

The story begins on May 24, when Bundestag MP Karl-Georg Wellmann was scandalously denied entry to Russia. The German politician, a member of the ruling party, who came at the invitation of the head of the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, Konstantin Kosachev, learned only from border guards that he was denied entry to Russia until 2019.

Wellman was forced to spend the night in the transit area of ​​Sheremetyevo Airport, waiting for a return flight, and later told reporters that he had been treated in a rude and discourteous manner, almost like a criminal.

It is not an isolated incident: German MEP Rebecca Harms was refused entry to Russia in September 2014, likewise Thomas Schneider of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in February 2015.

But the Karl-Georg Wellmann case was the last straw for the German authorities. They demanded that Russia publish its black list, whereupon a huge scandal broke into public view.

That the saga is far from over is clear from Russia’s reaction to the EU countermeasures with regard to Vladimir Chizhov. Konstantin Kosachev (whose invitation turned into a cruel joke on Wellmann) commented on Chizhov’s restricted access to the European Parliament on his Facebook page.

“Europe wants to have the last word at any cost, and the right to punish and pardon,” he wrote. “But we cannot afford to let them have the last word.”

It is highly likely that such statements will be followed by new “symmetrical” restrictions on European politicians, after which the diplomatic conflict could turn into a chain reaction.

Russia-EU scandal: Winners and losers

What on earth is happening, and who benefits from a further spoiling of Russia-EU relations, for which there is no apparent rhyme or reason?

One might be tempted to suggest that it’s all a cunning plan on Russia’s part, and that by publishing the list, Moscow is expressing dissatisfaction with Europe’s sluggish diplomacy, forever a step behind the United States, and its tardiness in restoring working relations with Moscow (as the Obama administration has done through Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Sochi).

However, in the absence of evidence that such plan exists, it would be more appropriate to assume that we are dealing with a common crisis of misunderstanding and an all too familiar difference of opinion between Russia and the EU as to what is permissible in modern international politics and what is not.

Often such irresolvable contradictions do not simply hinder the normalization of relations, but pave the way for new conflicts to arise.

According to the official position of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the EU’s reaction to the list was wholly inappropriate and even, in the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, pointed to the “intellectual and political squalor” of European leaders, who are “unable to perceive reality as it truly is.”

It is quite clear, say Russian Foreign Ministry officials, that Russia’s “stop list” is a response to Europe’s own list of persona non grata published more than a year ago, whereupon Russia’s response is more than reasonable, since its list is much shorter (89 names versus 151).

The fact that the list was conveyed to EU embassies is an “act of good will,” asserts the Russian Foreign Ministry, because it was done at their request and saved the flagged officials from the somewhat humiliating procedure of having to determine their status at a Russian embassy before their next visit to the Russian Federation.

Explaining why the list had been concealed from the interested parties for so long, Russian diplomats mention the desire to avoid a political scandal that could damage relations, and assert that “Russian law makes no provision” for disclosure of such information.

That final point, which is highly questionable, is the main bone of contention. European sanctions lists have always been drawn up on the principle of total transparency — the criteria for including certain individuals and organizations are quite clearly specified. As soon as they are compiled, Europe’s lists are openly published.

Meanwhile, Russia’s list, published last week, contains only names, with no explanation for their inclusion. Moreover, the fact that the list was handed to the media by an anonymous EU official was for some reason described by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova as a “base act.”

No one knows when or by whom the list was drawn up, and whether its secrecy was just a pretext for it to be manipulated as political circumstances required. The absence of representatives of countries that in the past months have spoken about a possible lifting of the sanctions against Russia suggests that the list could indeed have been drawn up quite recently, and not in response to the European bans first published back in March 2014.

European critics of Russia’s sanctions list can be divided into several groups. Many seem outraged by Russia’s “gratuitous” bans. Their stance is that Europe’s sanctions were a reaction to the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, while Russia’s are motivated by nothing other than a desire for revenge and feeble spite.

Other Europeans would be prepared to recognize the validity of Russia’s countermeasures, but only under conditions of “fair play,” which assumes logic and transparency. As noted by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the non-legal and non-transparent nature of the Russian list means it cannot be challenged in court, and is therefore completely absurd and unfounded.

Perhaps the most sensible and constructive position was expressed by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He said that the drafting of sanctions lists did nothing to help resolve the conflict at the heart of Europe, and that it was time for Russia and the EU “to talk with, rather than about, one another.”

Yet the chances that the most reasonable point of view will prevail among the Europeans, and that the Russian Foreign Ministry will draw lessons from the incident and become more open and consistent in the implementation of its sanctions policy, are minuscule. Most likely the scandal over the Russian sanctions list will be quickly forgotten — not because it is of no consequence, but because it will be eclipsed by more important events, for instance, the resumption of full-scale warfare in eastern Ukraine.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.