Interview of Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov with New Europe. 28 February 2014

Q: In a recent article written for New Europe, the Foreign Minister of Russia Mr. Sergei Lavrov said that this is decision time in the relationship between the European Union and Russia. He also referred to the Russian vision of a Eurasian space. A space that would start from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific. Of course there are many difficulties in such a project and at this moment we have a very particular development, the situation in Ukraine. How does this influence the relationship at this moment?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: Well, if we look at the potential impact of the political crisis that is unfolding in Ukraine, we understand that the EU is closely watching the developments and you will easily understand how concerned Russia is with those developments.

The Russian people and the Ukrainian people are brotherly nations I would say. There are millions upon millions of family ties, historic ties, cultural, linguistic I would stress, and of course economic and other ties. We all know that the European Union at one point developed its Eastern Partnership Initiative which included Ukraine. From the outset it did not include Russia and we never sought a place among those “focus countries” of the Eastern Partnership. Though we viewed the whole initiative with an open mind and were prepared to look at possible specific projects that might be of equal interest to the EU, focus countries and Russia. Unfortunately, the EU never came up with a single such project in all those years. On the other hand it promoted the idea of association agreements with some of the focus countries, though not all. For example, Azerbaijan was not interested from the beginning and Belarus was never offered one. Ukraine was offered one and they actually negotiated for several years and initialed such an agreement and it came to a possible signature at the Vilnius Summit of the Eastern Partnership at the end of last November. Shortly before that, however, President Yanukovich had second thoughts, because evidently he understood the possible implications of the entry into force of this agreement on the dire economic situation in Ukraine, which since then has only worsened. That was his choice.

Those who immediately started blaming Russia and still continue to blame Russia are totally unfair and incorrect, because Russia did not interfere in this situation. The only thing we did was to outline to our Ukrainian colleagues the implications that association with the European Union would have for the Ukrainian economy and its relations with other countries, including Russia.

Q: Russian sources have blamed the European Union for fuelling this situation.

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: In fact they were correct, unfortunately. There were some initial public reactions which are easily explained because the Ukrainian society had been the object of certain preparatory indoctrination. Even schoolbooks were changed to promote association with the European Union, and of course those people who came out to protest against that particular decision by President Yanukovych were eager to see Ukraine closer to the European Union. Most of them had no idea what the Association Agreement is all about. I would claim very few people had read it. They mostly thought that immediately after signature they would have a visa-free regime, which was never intended. That the EU will open up its limitless coffers and pour huge amounts of money into Ukraine, which was never the intention. But eventually those protests evolved into something different. If you compare pictures from the Maidan square, the Independence square in Kiev, in the first days and weeks to what happened towards the end of the sit-in, they look completely different because the popular protest was sidelined and then almost eliminated by thuggish-looking armed people, well-equipped with steel helmets, with flak jackets, with bats, and ultimately with firearms. The flags that were seen were no longer EU flags, but those red and black flags of the ultra-nationalists, and the portraits were not of Van Rompuy or Barroso, not even Ashton. They were of Stepan Bandera, a well-known Nazi collaborator and war criminal who is still considered a hero among the ultra-nationalists.

Q: By describing these people as very well-equipped with what are weapons, with helmets, with everything, it gives me the impression that you mean, perhaps you mean, that there was some outside help to this.

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: Well, definitely. All those events, and they lasted for months, needed money. The protests were fed, equipped, heated. Such things, indeed, require a budget. I’m not saying that the outcome of those protests was defined solely by croissants delivered by a well-known representative of the U.S. State Department. But evidently, both political and material support was provided for the opposition, I would phrase it like that: both the EU and the United States did not escape the temptation of supporting the opposition, whereas Russia kept a neutral stand. 

Q: These last few days we have seen some developments in the Crimea. Yesterday, I think, these were some armed people that we don’t know who exactly they are, that occupied government buildings and the airport of Simferopol. Today, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, probably the new minister, announced that Russian soldiers have blocked the airport at Sevastopol. Do you know anything about this?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: Well, I can assure you that the Russian authorities and the Russian military command had nothing to do with what was happening in the Crimea. Yes, Russia indeed maintains a naval base in Sevastopol, since the 18th century may I remind you. Its legal status is defined in a bilateral Russian-Ukrainian treaty on the stationing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which has been extended until the year 2042, on certain conditions. What was happening at the international airport of Simferopol overnight was not a show of activity or a show of force by the Russian military, but evidently an attempt by local groups who define themselves as squads of self-defence of Crimea. The second airport is actually a military airport; I don’t know what was happening there. It’s an air base, actually.

Q: Is it an air base used by the Russian forces?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: There is a special regime for the use of airports by the Black Sea Fleet. You know, I have a feeling that there is a deliberate attempt to shift the attention from the crisis situation in Kiev and the rest of Ukraine to the Crimea. What we see in the Crimea is a logical backlash of the events that have been unfolding in Kiev and elsewhere across the country. People in the Crimea, which as you know has autonomous status within Ukraine, they are fully prepared to defend their autonomous status whatever happens in Kiev. They do not recognize the new authorities in Kiev, and they have every right to do so because this changeover of power in the Ukraine was an act of-shall I put it mildly-questionable legitimacy. The person that you refer to as the minister of interior - there is no minister of interior because according to the constitution, any constitution, of Ukraine, ministers of interior, defence and other power structures, they can only be put in office by a decree of a president. So, this new government, which was promised to be a government of national unity, is far from that because it does not represent the eastern half of the country. Actually, only a small number of political factions are represented. So it can not be called an inclusive government, least of all a government of national unity. 

Q: If the situation in eastern Ukraine which is predominantly Russian, degenerates beyond a certain level, what Russia does?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: Well, I wouldn’t say that the whole eastern part of Ukraine is predominately Russian, but of course it’s the largest population-wise part of Ukraine. The majority of the population of Ukraine lives in the East. The majority of voters in a potential election are in the East. That is today completely neglected by those who have seized power in Kiev. You know that local governors and local parliamentarians of the east in half of the country, they had a congress in Kharkov and they are prepared to follow their own line.

Of course the economy of Ukraine is in a mess. This is perhaps one of the few conclusions that is shared by everybody. Something needs to be done. We know how the IMF works. It never gives money overnight. This was perhaps one of the reasons why President Yanukovych ultimately chose not to sign the Association Agreement, because the money that he would have had the chance to get through the IMF was linked to certain very costly, I would say, reforms in the line of austerity like raising domestic prices for energy 40%, like freezing wages, lowering pensions, and so on. So this was tantamount to a social time bomb.

Q: The situation in Ukraine, whatever the end result is, will be with us for a while. Obviously, you are in contact with the European Union about Ukraine. Do you believe that this situation has a potential of bringing Russia and the European Union closer together or is this something that will be a hindrance, let’s say, to further discussions?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: Things can go either way. We are of course in direct contact, and I would not reveal any secret if I said that Ukraine was very high on the list of issues discussed at the last Russia-EU summit at the end of January here in Brussels. Since then Minister Lavrov spoke to Baroness Ashton and will be meeting her next week. And of course I am in an online contact with EU representatives here. From what we’ve been hearing, the European Union expresses its concern, I would say very valid concern about the situation and is looking for ways to facilitate a political solution of the current crisis. It’s too early to say. We’ll see. On the other hand, we’ve seen some statements coming from individual EU member states and Members of the European Parliament. Some calling for sanctions, even sanctions against Russia. Actually, I believe the decision taken by the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU on the 20th of February regarding possible sanctions is now hanging in the air. The situation has progressed even further: the agreement between Yanukovich and those who claim to be leaders of the opposition witnessed by three EU foreign ministers signed on the 21st of February has now been virtually forgotten. The opposition has not fulfilled any of its obligations, including decommissioning of arms, vacating administrative buildings, dismantling barricades, etc.

Q: Russia announced after the events in Ukraine that it will certainly be stopping the financial assistance to Ukraine

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: Not stopping, suspending. Because Ukraine didn’t have a proper government.

Q: So this is something that may change in the future?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: We’ll see.

Q: It is also stopping or suspending the special price it was offering to Ukraine for gas.

It was in fact a package offer. The price for gas is subject to review every three months.

Q: Since this energy issue is very sensitive and we all remember what happened in 2006 and 2009, is there any danger of us seeing a repetition of this situation? Which directly affected Europe as well.

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: I hope not. In this case the new authorities in Kiev who claim to be pro-EU will put themselves at loggerheads with the European Union if they block the transit.

Q: It’s a question of them blocking the transit, not of Russia not providing enough gas?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: No, it was not the case in 2006 nor 2009. It was the Ukrainian authorities making obstacles to gas transit and actually diverting some of the flow.

Q: On another subject, that’s perhaps in a way related. You know that in certain regions of the European Union like Scotland and Catalonia, there is a movement towards independence. Recently, the president of the commission Mr. Barroso, referred to these movements and he said it would be very difficult for Scotland to become a member of the European Union if it decides to secede from the United Kingdom. Around that time, a British journalist was interviewing President Putin before the Sochi games and he asked him if Russia would ever think of offering Scotland or other areas like that membership to Russia’s union. Is this possible?

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: Well, you’ll have to ask the Scots first of all.

Q: Well, the Scots have to be asked for this.

Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov: I would say that should an independent Scotland ask to participate in the EurAsia economic Union, that request will be duly processed. And by the way, you may not be aware that Russia and Scotland have a very long tradition of relationship which is, I would say, not necessarily part of the Russia-British relations. If you look at the Scottish flag and at the flag of the Russian navy, they are practically the same. But I don’t want this to become an apple of discord between Russia and the European Union, no.