Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov' s interview with Europolitics, 10 March 2015
Question: Would you describe the Minsk II agreement of February as a fair deal?
Vladimir Chizhov: Yes.
Question: Some say that the separatists are emerging as winners. Do you agree?
Vladimir Chizhov: Any fair deal should be equally good or at least equally bad for the parties involved. That is the nature of balance and the primary goal of diplomacy which is the art of the feasible as my teachers told me many years ago. So, by its nature, the agreement is a compromise. A difficult one, judging by the number of hours the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine had to spend behind closed doors. It is important for both sides of the conflict to live up to their commitments and proceed to the ultimate political solution of the crisis.
In this regard let me dispel some common misperceptions. One is that my country is a party to that particular conflict and therefore is bound by certain commitments of the Minsk agreements. This is wrong. Russia is not a party to the conflict, it is a facilitator together with Germany and France in the Normandy format and the OSCE in the format of the Contact group. Our efforts are aimed at contributing to a political solution of the conflict in Ukraine between the Government in Kiev and the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. The second misperception. Any unbiased observer would find strange the logic of public statements coming from different western quarters which repeatedly say: “there can only be a political solution of the crisis…we support the Minsk agreements which should be fully implemented” and then, as if after a comma, they add that “if this does not happen we will introduce new sanctions”. That raises two questions. Why nobody says what will happen if the Minsk agreements are implemented in full? Otherwise an impression is created that those who say that do not really believe those agreements are viable. The second question is what will the European Union do if the Minsk agreements are not implemented by the Ukrainian government? Will the EU be prepared to introduce sanctions against Ukraine in this case? I have yet to hear an answer to that from my interlocutors in Brussels.
Question: Regarding the implementation of the agreement: US Secretary of State John Kerry says that he has evidence of Russia's direct involvement in supplying weapons to the separatists…
Vladimir Chizhov: With all due respect to the Secretary of State, during the whole duration of the conflict many US representatives have been claiming that they possess evidence regarding Russia's negative role in Ukrainian crisis. They said “we have mounting evidence” of Russia's involvement in the downing of the Malaysian airliner. But there is not a single case where any such “mounting” or even partial evidence has been produced. Would it not seem strange that the USA possessing sophisticated equipment and techniques would limit itself to producing hazy pictures on social websites or satellite images borrowed from commercial satellites? That indeed seems strange if not suspicious.
The same applies to claims of Russian military presence in Eastern Ukraine. I can quote the Ukrainian Chief of the General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko, who said on record that the Ukrainian army “is not confronting any Russian troops”. To this I will add the findings of three military on-spot inspector missions (Ukrainian, Turkish and Dutch with officers from other western European countries) undertaken on the basis of the OSCE Vienna document in adjoining area of the Russian Federation along the Ukrainian border. It is worth mentioning that these inspectors chose exact timing and place of their activities on their own. All of them reported that they had witnessed no unusual military presence or any increase in military activity.
Question: But where do the weapons come from and, most importantly, who pays for them?
Vladimir Chizhov: The arms are probably borrowed free of charge from the Ukrainian army which while fleeing the area abandoned much of its military equipment. The recent case of Debaltsevo is a clear indication: 28 serviceable tanks and over 150 military vehicles, including armoured personnel carriers (APCs), were left there. When the crisis erupted in the East of Ukraine the area which is now under control of self-proclaimed people’s republics housed at least 4 armour depots where tanks and APCs had been stored and two industrial facilities capable of repairing military equipment. They indeed were borrowed by the rebels. According to the leaders of the self-proclaimed people’s republics their problem is not a lack of arms but rather of qualified personnel able to use it.
Question: Russia has been calling for a reform of Ukraine's constitution. And, indeed, the Minsk II agreement details plans for reforms in Ukraine to be implemented by the end of the year to the benefit of the separatists. What exactly does Russia want?
Vladimir Chizhov: Actually, constitutional reform was part of the initial agreement of 21 February 2014 which was never implemented. The current rigid constitutional structure of Ukraine as a unitary state has not really worked. The constitutional crisis that unfolded last year was an ultimate expression of that. Let me remind you that opposition to the new government started with expressing wish for federalisation which was immediately rejected by Kiev. Had the Ukrainian government at that point agreed to discuss it, to engage in political negotiations, then many lives could have been spared. Instead Kiev launched a military operation called “antiterrorist”, but people in the East have been seeing it as a terrorist operation against them. Now there is no reference to the term “federation” in the Minsk agreements. Terminology is not important – Russia would accept any form that they agree between each other. We can provide constitutional expertise, all sorts of diplomatic assistance. The same can be expected from other members of the Normandy format, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. But no external solution can be effectively imposed on the parties.
What we see today is that initial law on special status of these regions which had never entered into force has been withdrawn from the parliament altogether. The Government has to introduce a new law agreed with representatives of self-proclaimed republics following the withdrawal of heavy weapons. The rebels announced they had completed the withdrawal and invited the OSCE to check. The Ukrainian army did not make such a statement and according to Ukrainian sources they are not very much inclined to finalise the implementation of the two first paragraphs of the Minsk agreement saying that all the rest will have to wait until there is complete ceasefire. Let us be realistic, in a conflict like this one should not expect a watertight ceasefire. If that is used by Kiev as a pretext for not fulfilling all the other elements of the agreement it can only be considered as a sign of provocative behaviour.
Question: Is Russia pushing for the creation of a federal state in Ukraine?
Vladimir Chizhov: Russia is pushing for a political solution. Federal, confederal, autonomous, semi-autonomous… terminology is not the question here.
Question: But each term carries a specific meaning - and many people see this as a first step towards splitting the country…
Vladimir Chizhov: That is totally wrong. For example, Switzerland is a confederation and has been in existence for many years…
Question: Do you think the Minsk agreement will allow to find a solution?
Vladimir Chizhov: Yes, indeed it will help to find a solution if it is fully implemented in good faith by both sides. Today unfortunately it is not the case. On the contrary we see steps undertaken by the Ukrainian government which go back from the Minsk agreement. They are sealing the territory controlled by self-proclaimed republics introducing customs-like checkpoints, they are not doing anything to alleviate the humanitarian situation. For example, they are blocking financial transactions despite a special provision on that in the Minsk agreement. They have been cutting gas supply which necessitated Russian company “Gazprom” to start pumping gas directly to these regions with officials in Kiev opposing this measure despite sub-zero temperatures.
Question: Let's turn to the embattled city of Mariupol: is it covered by the agreement?
Vladimir Chizhov: Mariupol is under Ukrainian army control. There was an incident of shelling of the city in January. The parties put blame on each other. No independent investigation has been carried out. Nevertheless, additional sanctions were introduced on that pretext.
Question: Do you really believe that the Ukrainians and the separatists will reach an agreement before the end of the year as stipulated in the Minsk document?
Vladimir Chizhov: It is possible, provided, as I said, there is political will to see this problem solved. Of course, I do not exclude efforts to procrastinate things. So far I perhaps have a more optimistic view than some of your colleagues from western media who started criticising the Minsk agreement immediately it was signed. It is a chance for peace to take root and nobody can afford to miss it.
Question: The European Commission has opened consultations on the future of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), and High Representative Federica Mogherini insists on the need to talk to the 'neighbour of the Union's neighbour', i.e. Russia. Do you consider the Eastern Partnership, which is a part of the ENP, dead?
Vladimir Chizhov: I don’t think the Eastern Partnership is dead, but I do believe that the decision to review the overall European Neighbourhood Policy indicates that the whole endeavour was based on a number of erroneous assumptions and questionable goals. ENP which started in 2004 seemed strange and slightly artificial from the very beginning because it lumped together countries as diverse as Algeria and Belarus. The reason behind its inception, in my view, was an attempt to create a buffer. Signs of enlargement fatigue were already visible in those days. Then in 2008 French EU Council presidency put forward the concept of a Union for a Mediterranean. In 2009 Foreign Ministers of Poland and Sweden Radosław Sikorski and Carl Bildt together launched the project of Eastern Partnership. We were following the developments saying from the outset that we do not consider Russia to be either an object or a subject of this policy, but we were viewing it with open mind. Should there have been a specific project that might have been interesting for us on a trilateral or other basis we would have been ready and willing to discuss it. The EU said “of course” and never came back with a single project. Instead it focused on the principle “more for more” which for an outsider like myself seemed more like a mentor’s policy vis-à-vis these focus countries. As a practical implication of that the EU started to pursue Association agreements with Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Azerbaijan rejected it from the outset, Belarus was never offered one. Armenia at a later stage chose a different path of development. Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich decided to postpone signing of the agreement saying he needed more time to address its possible negative consequences for Ukrainian economy and the country’s ties with Russia. He suggested to hold trilateral Russia-EU-Ukraine consultations on that issue but this idea was immediately rejected by the European Commission.
It was a mistake of the EU to push the Association Agreement without taking into consideration existing ties between those focus countries and their neighbours. Review of the ENP including EP is a necessary thing, albeit somewhat delayed. Hopefully it might allow the EU to correct some of its mistakes. It is regrettable that so many people have given their lives before the EU came to this conclusion.
Question: The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was launched on 1 January 2015. What is its real goal?
Vladimir Chizhov: The real aim of the EAEU is to create a highly competitive economic integration project which would provide member states with additional opportunities for economic growth, expanding economic ties and prosperity for their population. Today there are four countries (the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia) and by May Kyrghizstan will join. We are not in a great hurry to include other countries since we are taking into consideration not only positive, but also negative experience of the EU. I personally believe that the “big bang” enlargement of 2004 came at the expense of deepening European integration and now, I am afraid, the EU is paying for that.
Question: What about cooperation between the EU and the EAEU?
Vladimir Chizhov: The position of the European Union has evolved from total rejection of the idea of direct contacts with the EAEU or its predecessor Customs Union to recognition of the EAEU as reality and then onto expressing willingness to establish working contacts. There have been already some occasional contacts but so far not institutionalised ones. We are ready for that. Let me remind you that Russia-EU negotiations on a New Basic Agreement (NBA) got stuck in part because of initial unwillingness of the European Commission to deal with the Eurasian Economic Commission. At that time we already reached the point when some tentative parts of Russia-EU NBA could be handled on our side only by the Eurasian Economic Commission which being a supranational body (like the European Commission) took over some of our national competences.
Question: The EU has unveiled its energy union package in reaction to Russia's energy policy. What are your thoughts on this project?
Vladimir Chizhov: The baseline that the EU needs an energy union to put an end to interdependence with Russia is wrong. If that is the case, efforts aimed at creating this energy union will not lead to anything. As long as hydrocarbons remain the basis for the energy sector in Europe our interdependence will continue.
A European energy union can hardly be called a threat to Russia. I would rather describe it as erroneous policy. In particular, this framework strategy does not even list Russia among energy partners of the EU. One can not escape the feeling that this project is focused on limiting Russia’s role in providing energy for the EU.
We are interested in maintaining our access to the EU energy market based on predictable, equitable, mutually beneficial and non-discriminatory conditions. If the energy union can help promoting these principles we will be ready and willing to continue our cooperation.