Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov's interview with Europolitics

Submitted on Fri, 11/21/2014 - 00:00

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said that there is no reason to be optimistic about the situation in Ukraine. He described the conflict as "dangerous," and it was just "getting worse". Do you believe that the Minsk agreement is still relevant?

Yes, the situation is dangerous. Yes, there is no sign that tensions are abating. And yes, the Minsk process is still relevant. If you look at the outcome of [the recent] substantial discussions with Steinmeier and [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov, I think the most important element was their continued commitment to the Minsk process. This is very significant because there had been many different meetings in various formats, but it was only in Minsk in September that the two sides to the conflict actually came together at a negotiating table. I'm referring to the representatives of the government in Kyiv and those of Donetsk and Lugansk. It is this unique format that Minister Lavrov referred to yesterday. Because only direct dialogue between the two opposing parties can lead to a political settlement.

The crisis in Ukraine cannot be solved above the heads of the Ukrainian government or the leaders of the two self-proclaimed republics. A viable solution to the crisis would need the consent of both parties. People here say: we recognise the Ukrainian government and not the two republics, but in international politics we have seen quite a number of negotiations where one side is recognised but the other side is not. The history of decolonisation would provide some examples. More recently, we have seen a similar dialogue taking place between Belgrade and Pristina, or I could cite as an example the negotiations in Cyprus.

Minister Lavrov has referred to a document signed on 21 February by the parties in Ukraine as well as by the French and German foreign ministers providing for the establishment of a national unity government in Ukraine. What does Russia want? New elections in the country?

According to recent statements by the authorities in Kyiv and specifically by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, their preferred option would be to return to the format of the Geneva talks, which involved Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the United States but did not cover Donetsk and Luhansk. But the Geneva declaration of 17 April included a direct reference to the need for an inclusive political dialogue between the two conflicting parties which never materialised. Now the Ukrainian government suggests a return to that agreement, but no progress has been made in this field. So we see no reason for that.

As for the document of 21 February, which was signed by the then President Viktor Yanukovych and the three leaders of the opposition at that time - Yatsenyuk, the current prime minister, Vitaly Klitschko the current mayor of Kyiv and Oleg Tyagnibok, who is out of government – which, of course, is a positive development because Tyagnibok is the leader of a party that was described by the European Parliament in 2012 as being racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic. 

That compromise agreement was co-signed by the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland and a Russian special envoy was there as an observer.

Yanukovych promised that he would not introduce martial law or declare a state of emergency and that he would withdraw the special forces from the centre of Kyiv. He promised to implement constitutional reforms and to call early presidential elections before the end of this year. And before he fled the country he did deliver on his promises. The opposition also made commitments: they said they would end violence, which they didn’t do; evacuate the captured administrative buildings, which they didn’t do; dismantle the barricades, which they didn’t do; and, above all create a government of national unity pending the outcome of elections. They delivered absolutely nothing. Instead of proclaiming a government of national unity, the very next day they said “we are the winners.” So the losers were the people living in the East who could not but realise that the “winners” were not representing them.

But the elections did take place. How would you describe the outcome?

The parliamentary elections of 26 October were very messy, and a number of rules were violated. Frankly, if elections like this were to be held in my country, the EU would have never recognised them. In Ukraine, however, the EU found them to be free, fair and democratic. Russia was as flexible as it could possibly be when it recognised the results of these elections. We understood the need for Ukraine to have a responsible and accountable government that would deal with issues important for the country in the fields of the economy, energy and the overall crisis in the East and of course in order for both sides to have legitimate representatives. The other side had to organise elections under their own auspices, which they did on 2 November.
They are self-proclaimed republics, and they were led by self-proclaimed leaders who have the trust of the population, but who in turn needed legitimacy. I must admit that their elections were better organised than the Ukrainian ones.

What Minister Lavrov had in mind is to have accountable representatives. In Ukraine, people wanted to be part of the European Union and have a visa free regime (which they thought the Association Agreement would immediately bring), but their overwhelming motivation was also to get rid of corruption, to get rid of the oligarchs. But who is in power today? How many oligarchs will be sitting in the new Parliament and regional administrations?

Do you mean that in order to restart the peace process, both parties have to recognise both authorities?

The ultimate goal was national unity - see the document of 21 February. The fact that Yanukovych left the country did not cancel the need for a government of national unity. Now we have an elected President of Ukraine and an elected parliament. Soon we may also have a government if they manage to set up a coalition, which is sometimes not to be taken for granted. So what is needed as the most immediate step is to have military representatives from the two sides to finish the work they started earlier to define the buffer zone and to proceed along the lines of what had been agreed in Minsk, including the withdrawal of heavy weapons.

Do you mean that the EU and the other parties involved in the peace process have to recognise the results of the elections that were held in the Eastern part of the country on 2 November?

Not necessarily. The OSCE is represented in the Contact group, and it is also present on the ground with its Special Monitoring Mission. You don’t need formal recognition. When Israel and Palestine did the same, I mean drawing maps, that didn’t imply recognition.

Do you still believe that Ukraine could be a unified country?

I will share with you my personal view. Ukraine can overcome this crisis, but for that end it needs to bring the Eastern part of the country back to its fold. First of all, stop the fighting. It will have to negotiate and, of course, it will have to change the country's constitution. The unitary system that was adopted 23 years ago hasn’t worked. Decentralisation is what is needed. And this has to be taken seriously. I don’t want to prejudge whether it will be a federation or a confederation or something different, but there should be a real transfer of powers to the regions. Otherwise I don’t see a future for Ukraine as a viable country. But this is only my opinion.

You cited cease-fire violations from the Ukrainian side which made a lot of civilian victims in the eastern part but on Tuesday, NATO general secretary Stoltenberg also has denounced a "very serious" Russian military buildup. One week ago, the OSCE made a statement noting that 43 military trucks without license plates were going to Donetsk. They were coming from Mars?

There is no Russian military buildup. It is much simpler than that. We have witnessed unfortunately during six months of hostilities how Ukrainian army suffered heavy losses. A lot of their hardware was burned down. But some was captured. Also, eastern Ukraine has traditionally been a base of heavy industries. It is not just coal that was produced. They have also military industry and there were some depots of equipment left from the early days. So, Russia didn’t actually need to send military equipment to the separate Republic. The OSCE report didn’t specify the origins of the convoys, and representatives of the self-proclaimed Republics said the trucks belonged to them and they were simply moving them along the border.

The EU made a clear statement encouraging Russia and the separatists to respect the Minsk agreement. The EU pointed out in particular “the establishment of a viable control of the Russian-Ukrainian border”. Will Russia commit to do it?

(showing a map). There are two checkpoints at the border that are beyond Ukrainian control. There are 16 OSCE monitors working there. Their headquarters is in Russia and they are patrolling on a 24-hour basis and sending reports to Vienna. These reports are made public. They had been there for four months and they have not witnessed any single transport of military equipment. They have seen people crossing the border, some of them were wearing khaki clothes, but without weapons.

So why did the EU insist this week to ask for a better control of these checkpoints?

I don’t know. What kind of better control? The rest of the border is fully controlled by both Russia and Ukraine.

Regarding the cooperation between NATO and Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is it now obsolete?

Well, that depends on NATO. Looking at the overall situation, I have to say that this historic changeover – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union – it created the need for a pan-European system of security. And we have been struggling for that since the 90’s. First there was the Paris Charter for a new Europe. Then there were subsequent documents like the Charter for European security. It was a brilliant document. I was among those who negotiated it for months, it dates back to 1999. As an annex to that there was the Platform for Cooperative Security which envisaged bringing together the various security-focused institutions. It was an invention of the European Union which proposed it. In 2002 we also created the Russian-NATO Council. We regarded it with an open mind. We said to NATO that its system of security guarantees could serve as a basis that we could extend to the whole continent. The only answer we got was “no, this is for members only”. It was an answer that was creating a new dividing line across Europe with a first class security and a second class security. We tried also to reconfigure the OSCE to become a fully-fledged international organisation. Actually, EU member states were not negative about that, but there was one country who said no. It was the United States who has traditionally viewed the OSCE with great suspicion.

We also proposed a legally binding treaty on European security. That proposal was left on the table. In 2010, Germany proposed the “Meseberg initiative” to create a joint mechanism which could go beyond exchange of information and include joint-decision making. But it fizzled out. I think there is not just room, but a real need to create an equal space of security in Europe.

Will we know one day who was responsible of the crash of the MH17 flight?

We are concerned with procrastination of the investigation. The Dutch investigators arrived on the scene only two weeks after the crash because of the artillery barrage by the Ukrainian army. And it is only now that they are taking the debris of the plane. Russia provided all information from our satellites, from our radio communications and so on. And we have put ten questions to the investigators. None has been answered so far. I have my personal opinion of what really happened but I won’t comment on it publicly as I don’t want to influence the investigation – as some politicians in the West are doing. We really hope that the investigation will be objective and that hopefully before the snowfall all the necessary evidence will be collected. But why did the investigators lose all that time since the Minsk agreement? I’ve heard that it was because they didn’t want to deal with the Donetsk authorities. But the Donetsk authorities transmitted rapidly the black boxes to the Malaysian government. In such a tragic situation there are issues more important than political discussions.

French President Hollande reiterates he will take a decision without any pressure about the sale of Mistral warships to Russia.

I know that the contract has a provision for a three-month delay “for technical reasons”. But if it goes beyond that, I am sure that Russian side will demand compensation.

But do you think the conclusion of this contract could help to find out a solution in the Ukraine crisis?

I think what we need is not just maintaining communication lines between the EU and Russia, we also need to take efforts to reestablish trust which has gone down, and I mean efforts on both sides. On all sides.