Let’s first talk about arms control. As we speak [4 July], Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting with Pope Francis. They say that during the Cuban missile crisis Pope John XXIII played a positive role for reducing the tension...
The Cuban missile crisis was long ago. But I’m old enough to remember. Actually it was resolved more by direct communication between the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John Kennedy. Means of communication weren’t as sophisticated as they are today, of course. So at one point they addressed each other messages, that were read on the radio.
Today some compare the tensions over INF with the Cuban missile crisis, even from the Russian side…
At this point our biggest concern is the shrinking network of legal obligations in the field of nuclear arms control and disarmament. You may remember that for more than 40 years the two biggest nuclear powers were linked by a number of treaties with very specific mutual obligations.
Unfortunately, after the turn of the century this trend to create a web of such agreements started to crack. The first was the US decision to abrogate the ABM treaty, which dated back to 1972, co-signed by Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon. And it was working. I remember, in the seventies people were asking themselves: with so many offensive weapons aimed at each other, why did they choose to start by concluding a treaty limiting defensive assets, ABM?
But politically and psychologically it was perhaps the right decision. Because the more offensive warheads one has, the more it leads to an illusion of invincibility. So the whole philosophy of arms control was aimed at bringing the adversary to the understanding that a return strike would be inevitable.
The so-called MAD: Mutually assured destruction.
Yes. So, these treaties were supplemented by further ones like SALT 1, 2 and 3, and, in 1987, INF treaty. We were also proposing further agreements, both bilaterally with the US and in our dialogue with NATO.
Unfortunately, after the abrogation of the INF treaty, this backsliding continued. And the fact that the current US administration chose to kill the INF treaty sets a very dangerous precedent.
But they don’t say they decided to kill it, they say that Russia breaches INF with a missile you say is within the limits, and they say is beyond the limits. I’m not a specialist…
Neither am I. However, logically, if there are two parties to a treaty, there may be mutual recriminations. That was the case. We had ample evidence of US violations. But instead of sitting together and discussing a possible way out, Washington chose to act unilaterally and abrogate the Treaty. Actually they are still in the process. The deadline is 2 August.
That’s why I thought it was good to talk.
If INF becomes history, then we would be left only with the sole remaining strategic offensive weapons treaty, which expires in less than 2 years. And we have been sending appropriate messages across the Atlantic that we should either agree on extending it, or start working on a new one. Because if nothing happens by February 2021, then the world will become a less safer place.
Why Western Europe was so concerned during the so-called euromissile crisis in the early 1980s and seems more relaxed today?
Today, politicians, governments and public opinion in Europe believe this doesn’t concern them, and it is an issue between Russia and the US. The US administration has made a few public comments that they don’t have any intention to install new generation medium-range missiles in Europe.
Fair enough. But there has been an endless discussion that we have had with the US, NATO and the West in general, comparing intentions and capabilities.
Please explain yourself.
I’ll give you one example. A few years ago, I attended a small public conference where a representative of the NATO Secretariat was speaking. It was a time of internal turmoil in Pakistan. I asked a question: which country does NATO consider to be a greater threat, Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, or Iran, which does not. He thought for a while and said: I still think it’s Iran. I asked why. He said because nobody in Pakistan, neither the government, nor the opposition, had claimed that they would destroy another country, while the Iranians have said they would wipe Israel off the map.
But it’s true. I have been to Teheran; they have huge murals with such messages.
But again: it is all about this endless discussion about intentions and capabilities. Donald Trump has recently said he would destroy Iran, hasn’t he? I think that at some point our partners – we still call them partners, the US – will start contemplating the real situation on a global scale. This demands that the US and Russia maintain dialogue, which would govern these important elements as well. I understand that this was one of the topics discussed in Osaka when Presidents Putin and Trump met.
Good to know. But tell me, the American military-industrial complex exists, it’s not an invention, right?
Well, it was originally described by President Eisenhower as a “monster”.
But there is something similar also in Russia.
In Russia, I would say that the military-industrial complex exists, but it doesn’t play an independent role in politics.
But both of them are happy to build more missiles and this makes them feel important.
It wouldn’t be totally fair to compare military-industrial complexes of the two countries in terms of size, because the Russian defence budget, in dollars, is around $48 billion, while the US budget well exceeds $700 billion.
But in percentage to the GDP it’s quite close.
Not that close. And in any case the actual misbalance of physical amount of produced armaments is more important in this aspect. Having said that, I have to admit that Russian scientists and engineers have managed, within the obvious restrictions of the state budget, to develop sophisticated armaments that are unequalled on the global scale. This doesn’t mean that other countries will never be able to build something of the sort, but we have been there first.
Let’s move to EU affairs. What is your assessment of the results of the special summit which decided on future leaders of the EU institutions?
It was interesting to watch these developments. Let me start with the elections for the European Parliament. Those didn’t bring big surprises. My predictions, that the two mainstream parties would lose some support, and the populists and the right-wing parties would gain it, as well as the Greens, but not to the extent that they would dominate the political scene, actually came true. Of course, the relatively unexpected element was that the UK participated…
You said that the forces who want better relations with Russia are stronger now.
We will see. I hope that conclusion comes true. So, then they had a series of meetings in various formats trying to forge a solution for the top jobs. Some names could have been predicted, some popped out in very last moment, but none of them was anybody’s first choice. There were some radical changes in positions of national leaders, including well-known names, who at one point were insisting on one option, then on a different one, then again on a third one.
You must be happy that Timmermans did not become EC President, as a Dutchman he has an issue – MH17.
You know, I don’t want to discuss now individual personalities, we will judge everybody by how they perform. Yes, we are aware that Frans Timmermans knows our country well enough, he started his diplomatic career in Moscow, he speaks good Russian. So do quite a number of other candidates, like yours Kristalina Georgieva, Sergey Stanishev, born in today’s Ukraine… Yet Ursula von Leyen was born in Brussels, does it make a difference? Well, to the extent that she speaks fluent French and English. In her new job that is an asset.
For the first time French and German leaders are not going to speak in English, which was not the case before…
Well, as far as I heard, her name was put forward by French President Macron.
They say he was the winner of this summit.
From many aspects it appears to be the case. He was very vocal against the Spitzenkandidat system, which was dropped and might not reappear again. I have read a number of comments from various parts of the EU, practically all the winners of this race have received negative comments which I don’t want to repeat. We will see how that works out.
Of course the EU is not a state, it’s not even a confederation, ultimately important solutions rest with member states, which does not mean that we should neglect the EU institutions. Here in Brussels I work with all sorts of people, some of them more sympathetic to my country, others less sympathetic, but it’s the EU of today.
Would you expect some positive changes after elections of the new Ukrainian President?
That remains to be seen because the new President has yet to produce a concise platform of his own. What he said during the election campaign is one thing, today he contradicts some of those statements.
Before the elections he said his main goal was to achieve peace, and that he was prepared to talk to leaders of the two self-proclaimed Donbass republics. Now he says he won’t. He has not succeeded so far in building his own team, he has been unable to appoint a foreign minister of his own, even though the previous foreign minister [Pavlo Klimkin] is eager to leave the post to run for parliament.
As I understand, the latter is still in office, acting behind the back of his own President, as recent events have shown. The Russian Foreign Ministry sent a Verbal Note proposing some steps as a way out of the situation with the Ukrainian sailors. And immediately, the same day, Moscow received a negative answer from Kiev. It turned out later that Klimkin wrote a reply note without informing President Zelenskiy. The President went ballistic, said he would discipline Klimkin, and at the same time he appointed Klimkin’s wife to his own office.
Why doesn’t Russia just free these sailors?
The essence of our proposal was to allow them to go, but to oblige them to cooperate with the ongoing investigation in Russia, because the investigation still continues.
Is the Normandy format continuing, or you prefer the bilateral format?
The Normandy format continues, but before convening a summit, there should be stage by stage preparation – experts, foreign ministers, so to begin with we need a new Ukrainian foreign minister to participate.
On MH17 you don’t accept the results of investigation?
Of course we do not. That investigation failed to take into consideration whatever information Russia provided.
We have been open to cooperation from the first day, but the composition of the JIC was one that raised questions. Russia offered to participate, but we were rejected. Malaysia from the outset was also rejected, although it was a Malaysian plane driven by a Malaysian flight crew and destined for Kuala Lumpur. And, by the way, it was Malaysia who sent some investigators to Donetsk. There were Malaysians who received the “black boxes” untampered from the Donetsk authorities, and they didn’t have any problems going to the site.
But for the first few months Malaysia was kept away from investigation. While Ukraine, the country which initially failed to close its airspace over the battlefield, was and still is a full member of that investigating team.
Despite that we were prepared to cooperate, we sent all the data, even staged experiments with a similar missile and similar fuselage, and provided evidence that the shrapnel holes in the M17 plane looked like having been pierced by a Ukrainian missile.
So it wasn’t the famous BUK missile?
It was a Soviet-built previous generation of BUK, which is not in service in the Russian army anymore. But it is retained in the Ukrainian army, though produced in 1986.
Why do you blame Ukraine for not having closed its airspace, nobody could imagine similar to happen?
Some Western airlines had thoughts it could happen and changed their routing. But not Malaysian airlines, unfortunately. When I speak about the shrapnel, I underline that with the technical development of that missile system the projectiles were changed.
You know, the missile itself doesn’t hit the target, it explodes close to the target, covering it with small holes. Some of them may be round, some may have a different shape. So, the shape of those holes indicated it was 1986 generation missile which is only exploited by the Ukrainian army forces.
In general you mean the investigators found what they wanted to find and did not take into consideration what you have to say. But I cannot imagine that the Dutch are not interested in the truth.
If they are interested in the truth, they have ample possibilities of letting us know about that. But it looks like they are not interested so far, neither the Dutch authorities nor the JIC. And the four individuals whose names were thrown in as culprits, they have nothing to do with operating missiles, they cannot know how to push the button.
What is the next on your EU agenda?
Well, we continue. We try to keep our political dialogue alive, we have a political directors meeting coming up, we have a number of expert level consultations. We also continue cooperation in various sectorial fields, we are preparing another high-level meeting on counter terrorism in autumn, we have just had a session of the Joint Committee on Science and Technology. I will be soon reaching out to newly elected-slash-appointed high-level representatives to address a message that we are interested in improving our relations.
What about big energy projects, like Turk Stream? Where will it go from Turkey?
Well, it will go either to Bulgaria or Greece. Or both, provided the direction where it will go is cleared by the European Commission. The difference between Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream is that Nord Stream is a pipeline connecting one country to another country, it doesn’t need a further network of distribution, because it’s already there.
With Turk Stream you need further pipelines…
Precisely. With Turk Stream we cannot finish the job when pipeline makes its landfall. Some gas will go to Turkey, to Istanbul, because the functioning Blue Stream, which crosses the Black Sea to Central Turkey, is not enough. Istanbul is also already a huge consumer of Russian gas, via Bulgaria.
The problem, as we all know, is not Bulgaria, but Ukraine. By the way this doesn’t mean we intend to cut Ukrainian transit completely, as some of our partners, for example Moldova, depend on it.
More generally, our predictions are that for next decades consumption of gas in EU will continue to grow, also because EU’s own production will fall.
It has not escaped your attention that the US has sold LNG to EU countries at prices lower than Russian pipeline gas?
They have been saying that for quite some time. If there is a politically motivated attempt at dumping, I’m sure the antidumping services of the European Commission would have to take a close look at that.