Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, will pay a landmark visit to Moscow on Monday (25 April) to meet her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. 
 
It is the first time she has been invited to Moscow since she assumed her post in 2014. Her agenda will focus on foreign policy concerns, but she should also speak out on Russia’s domestic human rights situation.
 
One might ask: If the EU’s priority is to get Moscow’s cooperation for the political settlement of a growing number of crises in its eastern and southern neighbrourhood, should Mogherini ask hard questions about Russian domestic policy?

The answer is: Yes.

The Kremlin has silenced independent media and civil society groups, preventing any genuine public debate about Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s brutal tactics in Syria or the abuses of Russia-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine. 

That leaves president Vladimir Putin free to control the narrative.

With Russia facing protracted economic decline, the Kremlin is looking for a distraction.

Its strategy is to portray its foreign policy as a reaffirmation of Russia’s return to the world stage as a great power. Putin downplays concerns at home while imposing a narrative of Russian strength, brushing aside the crimes committed by Russia’s allies under the eyes of its own army in Syria and Ukraine.

In the face of growing discontent over the economic situation, increasing inequality, and allegations of corruption, many young people took to the streets.

The authorities responded by arresting the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and by detaining hundreds of others, including several journalists.

Mogherini should make clear that European values prevent greater cooperation with a government that crushes its critics.

She should also call on Russia to rescind its “foreign agent law,” which has been used to corner Russia’s independent pro-reform groups, to stigmatise their work and to pressure them with massive fines.

More than 150 groups have been forcibly listed as foreign agents under the law.

Such a message from Mogherini to Moscow would also be a message to Europe, as populist leaders in the West, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, have felt free to model their own legislation on that infamous law.

Homophobic purge

She needs to express outrage over the vile, state-sponsored attacks against men in Chechnya who were perceived as being gay.

Since late February, Chechen law enforcement officers rounded up as many as 200 men, torturing and humiliating them to force them to confess their sexual orientation. Several were forcibly disappeared and at least three have died.

Russian authorities have opened an investigation, but the Kremlin’s initial response was blaze.

The Kremlin has, for years, been letting Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, oppress his own people and create an armed cult of personal loyalty.

Kadyrov has personally denied the existence of the anti-gay campaign to Putin, so Putin’s handling of Chechnya’s tyrant will be telling.

The EU should be bold enough to remind Russia that it has a responsibility to rein in Kadyrov and to ensure that local authorities in the North Caucasus respect basic Russian law and international human rights norms.

Mogherini should also press the Russian government to fully investigate the threats by Chechen officials and clerics against Novaya Gazeta journalists who exposed the anti-gay attacks in the region.

She should not discuss Russia’s foreign policy without reminding Moscow that it has the power to stop abuses against critics in occupied Crimea and to alleviate the suffering of civilians at the hands of Russia-controlled rebels in parts of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

She needs to insist that there is no place for impunity for international crimes committed in Syria, and that Russia should do its utmost to ensure Syria’s cooperation in the investigation of the chemical attack that left dozens dead in Khan Sheikhoun.

Public podium

In recent months, EU diplomats, including Mogherini, have said the right things from Brussels about each new attack on critics in Russia and on the basic human rights of Russian citizens.

An invitation to Moscow is a unique opportunity to make those points loud and clear in private but also in public.

Now more than ever, the European Union should bring a message to the Russian people that Europe will defend and support their right to call for a more open, democratic, and transparent Russia.