The news that Malta was represented at Vladimir Putin’s inauguration ceremony following his unsurprising re-election as Russian president raised a few eyebrows. Malta joined representatives from France, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Earlier, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, strongly discouraged countries from attending this inauguration lest they be seen as giving Putin any undue signs of legitimacy.

In response to Times of Malta’s questions, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs argued that since Malta is at the helm of the rotating chairpersonship of the OSCE, it had no other option but to attend. This, however, did not “alter or soften Malta’s strong condemnation of the Russian Government’s actions in Ukraine.”

The spokesperson reiterated Malta’s condemnation of elections in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine and its support for groups who support democracy, peace and respect for human rights. To be fair, Malta has rarely put a foot wrong where it comes to its foreign policy stands in recent years.

The initial reaction to this news report may have been one of shock. How could any country show any sign – no matter how minor – of granting some legitimacy to a regime which is in flagrant breach of international law and engaged in an illegal war in a nearby territory? Why would anyone show up when opposition groups have been repeatedly intimidated and harassed into submission?

Moreover, the inauguration came weeks after Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was found dead in mysterious circumstances while in detention.

We may also see further dangerous behaviour from the Kremlin as it tries to destabilise the electoral process in Europe and other countries around the world.

The elections themselves are widely believed to be farcical. The European Parliament has described them as “stage-managed” with no possibility of any meaningful monitoring due to Russian electoral law – the OSCE itself was not invited to observe the elections. Putin secured over 88 per cent of the vote.

Given the above, should Malta and other European countries continue to attend such events when President Putin clearly shows contempt for everything they stand for? The result – unfortunately – is that there should be some limited engagement with the regime.

Regime change in Russia is not likely to take place soon, especially with an opposition which remains fragmented.

Whether we like it or not, the pragmatic approach is to accept that Putin will be the person to deal with for the foreseeable future.

This does not mean that one should accept Putin’s modus operandi. Nor does it entail appeasement. However, it necessitates a degree of realism to forge a sound and realistic foreign policy. Moreover, Russia remains crucial to peace, security, and stability in Europe. Peace in Ukraine cannot be brokered unless Russia agrees to sit for peace talks.

If that peace is secured, it will be a challenge to maintain it and avoid an escalation of tensions sometime in the future.

Moreover, Europe and Russia may share some strategic goals requiring an open communication channel between the two.

While the EU must remain clear and resolute in all it stands for, and while it should take every step possible to protect its territorial integrity, its values, and its interest, it must not do so by shutting all lines of communication – no matter how much it may dislike its other interlocutor.

Doing so would risk seeing it descend into isolationism and, ultimately, irrelevance.

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