'It’s a pity I never got to meet my neighbour,' Vladimir Chizhov says when he poses for the photo in the lofty stairwell. By an ironic twist of fate, the building where the Russian Federation has its office borders on the American embassy to the European Union. The 'neighbour' in question is none other than Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union who became involved in the Ukrainian scandal, and was questioned on 17 October under oath by the impeachment committee of the American House of Representatives. 'I do not know when he will come back.'
Chizhov can safely be called an old hand in the trade. He has been an ambassador to the European Union since 2005. He combines the traditional thoroughness of the hardened Russian diplomat with a sometimes cheeky sense of humour. We meet him in the beautiful building of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the European Union at the Boulevard du Régent in the heart of Brussels. After the liberation in 1944 this building was used as a mess for Canadian officers, says Chizhov with a smile. ‘When the Soviet Union bought this building a few years later, according to tradition it was literally what it was: a mess (chuckles)'. Today the building is in excellent condition, full of majestic stairs and graceful ceilings.
Relations between the European Union and Russia also seem to be in need of a thorough restoration. There are few areas in which the EU and Russia do not seem to be in conflict with each other. Since the 2014 events in Crimea, called “lawful reunification” by Russia and “annexation” by America and the European Union, the latters have still imposed a series of financial and economic sanctions, although more and more countries seem to want to waive these sanctions.
How would you define the current state of affairs in European-Russian relations?
(bemused) I don’t know what you are talking about. Relations between Europe and Russia… but Russia is an integral part of Europe.
I beg your pardon. I am referring to the European Union.
That is one of the main mistakes of the European Union, including some of its high level representatives. Europe is much larger than the European Union. I recently heard an EU leader talk about making the EU the first climate neutral continent. Since when is the EU a continent? (chuckles) The EU cannot exist as a continent, cut off from the rest of Europe.
Why is this so important?
Ten years ago we had a summit in Khabarovsk, a city in the Far East of Russia. That was an interesting experience for the EU participants. As some of them confessed, there they understood that the EU is really only a small peninsula of the great Eurasian continent. It is clear that the EU can only stay competitive in a multipolar world full of emerging powers if we unite forces. That is why my President has proposed to forge a Europa from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
You’ve been working in Brussels since 2005. What has been the biggest change in relations?
We’ve had our ups and downs. I regret that we have not had a bilateral summit since 2014, when the EU failed to turn up. Currently relations are in an abnormal state. But we remain hopeful the EU will soon find its way.
Isn’t it understandable the European Union cancelled the summit following the Ukraine crisis?
I would not say Ukraine is the main reason for relations being tense. The crisis in Ukraine has served more as a catalyst rather than a motive. We had difficulties before. The baseline is that the EU has not yet understood how to deal with Russia. There have been misperceptions, on both sides.
One of the main issues is that the EU is promoting itself nowadays as an entity built on values. That is historically false: the EU was created on the basis of interests. It was created to prevent another war in Europe. The original idea was to destroy the armaments and deprive France and Germany of the arms industry. The European Coal and Steel Community, as the EU was called in the beginning, were the main products used in the armaments industry back then. It was only much later that all those so called values came decorating that original Christmas tree.
Is it a bad thing that the European Union is a values-based system?
That depends on the definition of values. Whenever one of my interlocutors here reminds me of EU values, I always ask to give me a list, so I can compare them with our view of basic values. I never got that list. When I ask whether same sex marriage is part of our common European values, I am sure that even in today’s EU not all countries would share that view. Is the existence of a hereditary House of Lords part of our democratic values?
They will probably answer that having free and fair elections is a part of EU values. They might even add that Russia lacks this.
Then again, the question arises what free and fair means? Look at the American electoral system: it is medieval! I have told this several times to my American interlocutors. And they actually agreed (laughs).
The American system might be a bit odd, but it surely does not compare to what happens during election campaigns in Russia.
Well, we may have questions regarding elections in some parts of the European Union. But we are all members of the Council of Europe and we are all members of the OSCE, which has electoral monitoring mechanisms that should be equally applied. But for some reason they send 500 monitors to one country and zero to another, claiming the latter is an “established democracy”. That is unfair. At some point, the EU started to be seen as a shining castle on top of the hill. That lasted for some time. I think the shine has worn off a bit. The EU has not become a super state, and probably never will.
Russia has gained an enormous presence in the Middle East, while the EU is entirely absent. What does that change?
Actually, Russia is returning to the Middle East. The Soviet Union was widely present there in its day. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has had to backtrack from some parts of the world. Now Russia is in a unique position. We are the only country capable of talking to everyone. Benjamin Netanyahu visits Moscow twice as often as he does Washington. We speak with the Palestinians, the Saudis, the Turks, the Syrian government, the opposition. Apart from altruistic motives we do this to stop the spread of international terrorism.
To prevent terrorism from resurging, countries like Iraq and Syria will have to be rebuilt. Is Russia going to do that?
Well, we have already been helping the Syrian government. We have reconstructed houses and hospitals, but of course a greater effort will be needed of the international community. The EU has held three conferences on rebuilding Syria, without talking to the Syrian government, nor the opposition. They say they do not want to start negotiating without a political transition. I have tried to point out: winter is approaching faster than it takes for a political transition to come.
Emmanuel Macron made a speech in late August…
Indeed! Very impressive.
…in which he has called for a better relationship between the EU and Russia.
We have taken due notice of President Macron’s speech. I fully support him in his aims.
What would you tell mister Macron if he were to seek your advice?
I would welcome him with open arms, and invite him to find a majority among EU countries that is willing to make the necessary corrections to the current Russia policy of the European Union.
Would you advise him to lift sanctions?
First and foremost: these are not sanctions. These are unilateral restrictive measures. When we speak with individual countries, we sometimes hear that those so-called sanctions should be lifted. But when those countries come together, they produce another extension of those decisions. It kind of goes like this: when they get around the table, some countries propose to roll back the sanctions because they are not working. Other countries – we know who they are – then claim that the sanctions are not working because they are not strong enough. At the end, the presiding authority proposes to leave things as they are and extend the sanctions for six more months. Finally, the presiding party gets on the phone and tells me they managed to avoid the sanctions being strengthened.
After which, of course, you express your gratitude.
Of course, not. My literal response is: so what? This is not the way out of this situation.
But Russia wants the sanctions to be lifted, doesn’t it?
We are not asking anyone to lift anything. It is a mistake the EU has made, and it is up to the EU to rectify that. When it is ready to do so, the EU will know where to find us. The day the EU decides to lift its so-called sanctions, all countermeasures we took will be immediately lifted.
So you are in a way negotiating.
No. We are not negotiating the substance of it.
Do you worry on the future of the EU?
No. It is a very sturdy construction. Brexit has shown how difficult and painful it is for a country to leave the EU.
Some European leaders are afraid that as the EU is not sitting at the table with the big powers, it might actually be on the menu.
If you ask me whether it is on Donald Trump’s menu, I cannot comment. But I could of course remind you of the fact he recently said the EU ‘is as bad as China, only smaller’. I can assure that it is not on Russia’s menu.
You have heeded words of warning for Greece lately, claiming the Americans are not to be trusted.
I am afraid my words might have been misrepresented. A couple of weeks ago, Greece signed a new defence agreement with the US. And I merely pointed out that the Greeks should be careful, because the Kurds also thought of the Americans as their allies. And look what happened to them…
That would apply to all European NATO countries.
(smiles) Indeed it would. But in all sincerity, we do not want to split anyone. Russia does not want to split the European Union, though you might think otherwise. America has got a role to play in the European security policy.
Do you see any American openness towards Russia?
(sighs) I guess the Americans are too busy eating themselves for the moment.
I thought you were going to say that they are too busy hunting down Russians hackers.
Oh, that has become something of the past lately. They are now all fighting about Ukraine. If you listen to American media, you will notice Ukraine is mentioned about a hundred times more often than Russia.
Is that a positive evolution in your view?
It might have the advantage that a few more Americans now know where Ukraine is.
Including the president?
(smiles) The American president is well aware where Ukraine is. He has been travelling a lot before he became president, you know.
What does the election of Zelensky change for Russia?
I think the past election was more of an anti-Poroshenko vote than it was a pro-Zelensky one. But Zelensky gained a lot of trust from the electorate, which he should use wisely. Otherwise his support may quickly disappear. I understand his difficulty. Even with the huge majority he gained, there are still a lot of people in his administration with a different agenda.
Do you think there will be another Normandy-format negotiating summit any time soon?
There are several things before a summit can take place. One thing is moving away Ukrainian troops from the separating line in Donbas. The Ukrainian side has been unable to deliver that. They claim they need seven days of ceasefire before they can withdraw. The OSCE has ruled this has already happened many times, and still they refuse. There are of course nationalist groups like the Azov Battalion that have announced they will move in if the Ukrainian army leaves. Whatever Zelensky might be saying, his inability to order them away shows a lack of leadership.
For the West it is evident that Russia is the aggressor in this conflict.
Naming Russia as the aggressor is totally unfounded. If Ukraine is serious in its allegations, why have they never declared a state of war? In February 2014, three foreign ministers from the EU came to negotiate with the Yanukovich government. The Ukrainian government agreed to withdraw police and special forces from the Kiev centre and lift the state of emergency. But the then opposition did not follow up on its promise to vacate the governmental buildings and form a government of national unity. They considered themselves to be the winners. After that, the people of Donbas rightly thought: if they are the winners, we are the losers. In the beginning, Donbas was in favour of federalisation of the country. Which is fair: Ukraine is a divided country, and can only remain intact if federalisation takes place.
If the Donbas demands are fair, why then has Russia not recognised the People’s Republics?
We consider them to be part of Ukraine. There should be a new law defining their special status.
But you surely cannot claim Russia is not involved in the Donetsk People’s Republic? They use the ruble as a currency, and Moscow has signed a law issuing passports in the region. Isn’t this an economic annexation?
The DPR does not have its own official currency. Why would they use Ukrainian currency when they are in an economic blockade? These regions used to be rather economically developed, with a considerable mine industry. Nowadays, Ukraine has to import coal from the United States and South Africa instead of getting it next door. They have cut all links with their eastern regions.
How does it help the situation that Russia is handing out Russian passports in the region?
The DPR and LPR passports are not recognised anywhere, so we have offered them the possibility of a simplified procedure. We are of course not demanding that they denounce their Ukrainian identity. We only give them the possibility to travel. If Ukraine is unwilling to help its own citizens, surely we cannot be idle. This is merely a humanitarian gesture.