Out to lunch: Russian envoy to EU claims packed schedule despite public freeze-out

Moscow’s top envoy to Brussels has devoted the past 17 years to fostering EU-Russia relations.

There’s isn’t much to show for it today.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, relations between the EU and his bosses in Moscow have — in the words of ambassador Vladimir Chizhov himself — hit their “lowest point since their inception 30 years ago.”

“The EU no longer considers my country to be a strategic partner,” added Chizhov, who called himself a “living monument” to the idea of a strategic partnership between Europe and Russia.

Instead of a partnership, Russia’s relations with the EU could be described, generously, as icy. The bloc has thumped Moscow with sanctions on everything from luxury goods to banking and dozens of Russian diplomats have been sent home.

But as the war in Ukraine drags on, European unity on the severity and scope of the sanctions has fissured. The bloc has stopped short of imposing an oil or gas import ban, and some countries have gone so far as to accede to Russian demands to pay for energy imports in rubles — a concession that Chizhov claims a hand in.

Chizhov also said that, despite Russia’s public rejection in Brussels, behind the scenes he’s still getting plenty of face time with envoys from other countries, including EU ones. “This week I had three lunches in five days,” he told POLITICO in the Russian embassy’s tea room on Friday, patting his belly and gesturing toward the dining room next door. (Unlike the Russian ambassador to Washington, Chizhov has not yet seen his chef expelled.) The diplomat added that he was in touch with “lots of people,” keeping a schedule full of Zoom calls and diplomat lunches, though he repeatedly declined to identify who he’d met or what countries they represented.

Adding to Chizhov’s workload: picking up the slack from the unprecedented expulsion of 19 Russian diplomats from the EU mission, including experts on energy, agriculture, transport and the Iran nuclear deal. (Some 40 remain, he said.)

But the diplomat declined to offer details about his activities in Brussels, and he has a reputation for stating falsehoods. In January, a few days before Russia invaded Ukraine, he called Western government warnings about said invasion “hysterical.” More recently, he told Sky News that any civilian deaths in Ukraine could “not be at the hands of Russian armed forces.”

It’s the kind of claim that’s led diplomats from some other countries to write off Chizhov as not being worth their time.

“He is someone who will say absolutely anything no matter how absurdly untrue,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner, adding that he’d chosen not to meet with Chizhov during his tenure from 2014 to 2017. “I knew it would be a waste of time.”

Asked if his communication playbook, which includes lots of blanket denials about reported Russian misdeeds, had proved effective in any way, Chizhov said: “It’s not for me to judge whether my persuasion strategy is successful, highly successful or partially successful. It’s up to others,” adding: “It’s certainly not a total disaster, or else they wouldn’t have kept me for so long here.”

Out to lunch: Russian envoy to EU claims packed schedule despite public freeze-out
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov in 2012 | Alexei Nikolsky/AFP via GettyImages

None of which stops Chizhov from making further claims, including that he, and Moscow, have more friends than public statements from Western leaders would suggest.

Take European lawmakers. “When you talk to them one-to-one, they seem to be understanding,” he said.

Sure, when they get together and vote in the European Parliament, those same MEPs often vote for resolutions that “are, on many occasions, outrageous,” he said. Yet there’s “one good thing” about those resolutions, he said: They’re non-binding.

Sporting a blue-gray suit and sky blue tie, Chizhov remained wryly chipper even as he lamented the growing “misperceptions” that have, in his view, poisoned Moscow-Brussels relations for more than a decade.  

He said that nothing about the West’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine surprises him although, in his eyes, it’s all misguided. Commenting on Finland’s recent request to join NATO, he said the country would go from “punching above its weight” to a “backwater of NATO,” and that European economies will suffer more from fossil fuel sanctions than Russia (“so-called sanctions,” he quipped, arguing that only the U.N. can impose those beyond the national level).

Practically next door to the U.S. Mission on Brussels’ Rue du Regent, Russia’s art nouveau embassy has exhibits about happier times with (parts of) the West, including the shared fight against the Nazis in World War II and a timeline of bilateral Russian-EU summits. The last one of those was in January 2014 — the planned summertime gathering in the Russian city of Sochi was canceled after the annexation of Crimea.

“I haven’t forgiven the European Union for failing to come,” Chizhov said. “I was planning to go there myself.”

The end of those summits also meant he got a lot less direct contact with Vladimir Putin. They’re not regularly in direct touch — but Chizhov said with pride that he had played a role in facilitating last month’s call between European Council President Charles Michel and the Russian president. (A spokesperson for Michel declined to comment in a way that shed any light on Chizhov’s role or answer questions about Russian contacts with Michel’s team).

Chizhov, 68, has been devoted to European affairs even before his 2005 arrival in Brussels, with stints at Russian embassies in Cyprus and Greece; an OSCE posting in Vienna; and various roles related to Europe and U.K. policy at the foreign ministry.

It’s an unusually long Brussels sojourn that has seen Chizhov remain in his post while many of his peers have moved onto their fifth or sixth diplomatic posting. That said, the ambassador said he could be recalled at any time and that “psychologically,” he was prepared for “any development.”

Should that day come, he may find it tricky to get back to Moscow.

Most direct travel routes have been cut off, putting a damper on his trips home — but Chizhov added that there are ways to travel back, via Dubai for example.

Before retreating into his chambers, Chizhov put in a final bid for rebuilding the EU-Russia relationship.

“Before you guys burn all the bridges, think of the effort you will need to repair them,” he said. As for Russia, he added, “We are not burning any bridges.”