Josep Borrell’s bungled visit to Russia last week will be remembered as a low point in the so-far largely undistinguished history of the EU high representative for foreign policy, an office created more than two decades ago. Borrell went to Moscow proffering detente and closer co-operation despite the serious deterioration in relations over Vladimir Putin’s aggression abroad and authoritarianism at home. In response, Moscow scorned the EU as an “unreliable partner” and kicked out three European diplomats.

Borrell’s trip was ill-timed and badly advised given European outrage over the attempted murder of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, his jailing on trumped-up charges and the clampdown on subsequent mass protests across the country. There was no clear purpose for it. At an embarrassing press conference, the EU foreign policy chief handed the Kremlin a propaganda opportunity by lauding Russia’s coronavirus vaccine while criticising US policy on Cuba. He failed to hold his own against Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. The debacle further dented the credibility of the European Commission, of which Borrell is vice-president, after its flawed handling of vaccine procurements.

When Russia needed to see European strength it was shown weakness. Behind Borrell’s mishaps, there is an absence of EU strategy on dealing with the Kremlin. The union’s commendable resolution to maintain economic sanctions following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its war in eastern Ukraine has become an excuse for inaction on anything else. The EU is deeply divided about inflicting further financial punishment. Berlin seems determined not to sacrifice the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas to Europe. Borrell went to Moscow with no stick and half a carrot. French president Emmanuel Macron tried to reboot relations with Russia 18 months ago, irritating other EU capitals with his unilateral initiative. Unsurprisingly, it proved a flop, with the Kremlin giving nothing in return. This latest outreach has added ignominy to that failure.

The European External Action Service, Borrell’s department, is an embryonic foreign ministry for the EU. At this rate it will remain embryonic. It played a central role in brokering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, parlaying European unity into real diplomatic influence. It was the service’s first big achievement. And the last one. The EU’s member states are largely to blame. They have a habit of appointing foreign policy chiefs who will not become too powerful.

Borrell is a veteran politician with a candour that is sometimes refreshing but can also lead him into trouble. He has tried to carve out a role that goes beyond the lowest-common-denominator policymaking that will be a feature of the EU as long as governments can wield a national veto. He is trying to give substance to the EU’s ambition for “strategic autonomy” but does not necessarily have the policy levers to back it up. Acting independently from Washington for the sake of it does not constitute a credible foreign policy.

The EU’s real leverage stems from its policies on trade, regulation and market access. Its weakness lies in its inability to match strategic interests with economic ones. Meanwhile, the presidents of the commission and European Council are carving out bigger foreign policy roles for themselves.

Borrell described his “very complicated” trip to Moscow as a turning point for relations with Russia. If one good thing can come out of this diplomatic debacle it is that it might galvanise the EU into stronger action. By humiliating Borrell, Moscow humiliated the EU. It cannot go unanswered.