Speaking points by Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the EU Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov at a conference “Back to the Cold War or forward to stable relations”. Athens, 23 January 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me to start by saying that the question posed by the section’s title – namely “is strategic partnership between Russia and the EU still possible?” – begs an obvious answer. In my mind, not only is Russia-EU strategic partnership a theoretical possibility, but it is a practical necessity for both sides. Needless to say, Russia as well as countries belonging to the European Union are part and parcel of Europe. No matter what happens in our relations, at any given moment, we will be forever united by geography, a shared history, mutually complementary economies and millennial ties of language, religion and culture. And, of course, common responsibility for peace and security on our continent.
Ever since the onslaught by the Mongols in the 13th century, Russia has time and time again prevented the certain demise of European civilization. Moreover, at times we had to save Europe from itself. This month we solemnly commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp by Soviet soldiers. And in May we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism – though the history of World War II continues to be under siege in some European capitals.
Being here in Athens today, I am reminded that the first independent Greek state since the fall of Constantinople – the Septinsular Republic - was created on the Ionian islands following the liberation of Kerkyra (Corfu) by the Russian Black Sea fleet under the command of Admiral Fyodor Ushakov in 1799. And so I leave to you the question whether Europe could ever exist without the European Union, but to me it is clear that there can be no Europe without Russia.
The fashionably skewed debate regarding Russia’s supposed detachment from European values and principles is a false and deeply misleading one. Most if not all countries of the European continent abide by the same legally binding code of standards, namely the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the politically binding acquis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. How these norms are translated into reality is a different question. No country in the world, I may add, should be above reproach, EU member states included. However, for the record, let me state that Russia has always been a stout champion of these values and principles. The EU, on the other hand, is apparently having second thoughts about acceding to the European Convention on Human Rights, as the recent ruling by the European Court of Justice seems to indicate.
The ongoing predicament between Russia and the West has within its narrow focus the conflict in Ukraine. Recognizing the extent of the tragedy which has unfolded in that country, allow me to stress that in our view, the current crisis has its roots in a much more systemic problem. Contrary to expectations, the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago did not herald the establishment of a “common European house”. Exclusive clubs of influence like NATO and the EU endured and sought to extend their geopolitical influence. We have witnessed attempts to resolve complex issues in Europe and elsewhere through interference in the internal affairs of states, destabilization of elected governments and military coercion – all in violation of the UN Charter and the above-mentioned OSCE principles. No wonder that division lines and confrontational stereotypes continued to linger.
For over two decades Western partners, despite our repeated petitions, avoided redressing this strategic flaw. Let me briefly recount the initiatives proposed by Russia aimed at reinstating the principle of indivisibility of security in Europe. In 2005 we proposed a roadmap for reforming the OSCE. In 2009 we came up with the idea of concluding a pan-European Treaty on European Security. And in 2012 Russia pioneered the groundbreaking proposal to create a common European economic and humanitarian space by linking up the processes of European and Eurasian integration. These ideas were invariably met in the West with indifference at best or outright skepticism – under the dubious pretext that their implementation would somehow weaken EU solidarity or the collective security guarantees of NATO.
Instead the “Eastern partnership” project was launched, clearly conceived as a soft-power substitute for NATO expansion in the post-Soviet space. Today it is fashionable to justify the creeping expansion of Western blocs of influence by asserting that all post-Soviet countries have the freedom to choose their geopolitical affiliations. But let me remind you of what happened in Ukraine – when in November 2013 the democratically elected President of the country, Victor Yanukovich, made his choice to merely postpone the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, the West reciprocated by openly supporting violent street protests in Kiev and toppling Yanukovich in favour of a vehemently anti-Russian “government of victors”, trampling on its own commitment to support a government of national unity and an inclusive process of constitutional reform. So, it would appear that the “freedom to choose” is acknowledged as long as the choice is a pro-Western one.
Coming back to Russia-EU cooperation, although heralded as strategic in name, it has, sadly, not escaped the overall drift in Russia’s relations with the West. Allow me to draw your attention to just two instances, which, I believe, exemplify the approaches of the European Union to cooperation with Russia long before the Ukraine crisis.
In 2003 the then President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi boldly forecast that in five years’ time Russian and EU citizens would be able to freely cross borders without visas. At a Russia-EU summit that same year the introduction of a visa-free regime was agreed as a long-term goal in bilateral relations.
Yet in recent years negotiations on this noble objective hardly progressed. Since 2012 we have been waiting for our EU partners to agree on an updated version of the 2006 Visa Facilitation Agreement which would have significantly reduced bureaucratic “red tape” for travel of representatives of civil society, journalists, scientists and athletes. Not only did the EU fail to summon the required qualified majority of votes in the Council, but over those two years we were faced with additional preconditions and artificial linkages of the agreement with totally unrelated aspects of Russia-EU relations.
Secondly, ever since the Russia-EU summit in Rostov-on-Don in 2010 we have sought to place bilateral cooperation in the area of crisis management on a firm legal footing. Such a step would have allowed Russia and EU military and civil units to swiftly deploy together to hotspots across the globe, avoiding protracted parliamentary wrangles on approving foreign peacekeeping interventions. Surely, acting in unison to contain emerging threats to international peace and security would be in the interest of both EU and Russia.
Nevertheless, in practical terms, ever since that time our EU partners have proven unable to move beyond a precooked “one-size-fits-all” approach. The EU’s position presupposed only one mode of cooperation – namely, Russia’s role of a junior partner in EU-led crisis management operations. And this in spite of the EU having agreed back in 2008 that joint Russia-EU crisis management would be enacted “in the spirit of equal (and I stress the word “equal”) partnership and cooperation”.
I am singling out these two cases for obvious reasons. They are largely devoid of politics. They draw on comparative advantages available to both sides. Both Russia and the EU would have stood to gain from enhanced cooperation in these areas. And yet even in these mutually advantageous and practical fields of cooperation we have been unable to make substantive headway.
In conclusion allow me to humbly attempt to chart a way forward for Russia and the EU.
Above all, it is imperative to advance towards a swift resolution of the Ukraine crisis. The current flare-up of fighting in Donbass is certainly a cause for serious concern. It is beyond doubt that the authorities in Kiev have used the recent ceasefire to regroup forces and have not abandoned the ill-conceived idea of achieving a military solution to the conflict. It is disappointing that Kiev has been procrastinating with its response to President Putin’s initiative dated January 15 on the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the line of contact, including failing to show up at a meeting of the Contact Group scheduled in Minsk for January 16th. Let me be absolutely clear - the Minsk agreements, including provisions on ceasefire, heavy arms withdrawal, political dialogue, measures to alleviate the humanitarian situation and promote economic recovery, must be adhered to by all sides of the conflict. The number one objective is to put an end to hostilities and resume the “silence” regime. With this in mind we count on the EU to do its part in containing the “party of war” in Kiev. This can hardly be achieved through blanket support for everything the Ukrainian government is currently doing. It is up to our partners to persuade Ukraine to finally start along the path of a genuine and direct dialogue on constitutional reform with the involvement of all regions and political forces. Such a dialogue would lay the groundwork for national reconciliation and, in time, for a viable Ukrainian state, in which all its inhabitants would feel protected and comfortable.
Obviously, the path of unilateral sanctions – or should I say the “road to nowhere” – must be abandoned, if our relations are to regain a sense of normality. The gloating heard from some quarters on how Russia’s economy has been affected by Western sanctions is misplaced. To most analysts it is beyond doubt that the sanctions campaign has significantly damaged the EU’s own ability to escape the vicious circle of economic malaise, deflation and unemployment. Many European companies have invested billions of Euros in the Russian economy and have earned an excellent reputation and operated successfully in my country. Now they are forced to incur losses or give up their market share.
Make no mistake – Russia will not be drawn into a tit-for-tat discussion on criteria for waiving EU sanctions, which we consider to have been illegitimate in the first place. The ball is firmly in EU court. It is reassuring that high-ranking EU officials have started pondering an “exit strategy” out of the sanctions impasse. Yet, as we all know from experience, EU machinery makes it very difficult to change a previously agreed, albeit wrong and outdated, course of action. We will be closely following internal deliberations of EU Member-States ahead of the European Council meeting in March.
The hideous attacks in Paris have once again highlighted the real threats and challenges that European countries are facing today. There is a growing awareness that the scourge of international terrorism, financed through organized crime and drug trafficking, can only be tackled collectively. Over the years Russia and the EU have constructed a network of mechanisms of cooperation between their security, military and law-enforcement agencies. Yet today, because of the EU’s position on the Ukraine crisis, this joint work is frozen. Meanwhile, terrorists have not stopped cooperating. Let me remind you that the so-called “Islamic State” is active not just in Syria and Iraq, but also in Libya, Lebanon and Northern Afghanistan, which is just a stone’s throw away from Central Asia. In short, Russia and the EU are facing an arc of terror along our common Southern periphery. It is only reasonable that we start acting as adults and reopen all channels of communication, something that could contribute to saving the lives of our citizens.
But, above all, Russia-EU relations beyond the Ukraine crisis will have to acquire a degree of ambition and a strategic horizon. Even in spite of current tensions, Russia has not abandoned the long-term goal of establishing a free-trade area between the EU and the newly established Eurasian Economic Union. Naturally, we must be realistic. At this time the prospect of a single economic and humanitarian space from Lisbon to Vladivostok may seem a distant one. But perhaps a goal like this would be worthy of the historic role of today’s generation of Europeans.
As our other neighbours, the Chinese, say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For a start, it would be expedient to set up initial working contacts between the European and the Eurasian Economic Commissions. It is welcoming that the EU is finally coming to embrace this idea. Such a move would enable both sides to address current trade and economic differences, and understand concerns related to the EU association agreements with countries of the “Eastern Partnership”. The next logical step would be to commence EAEC-EU dialogue on harmonizing technical regulation systems and lowering non-tariff barriers. In time this process could lead to increasingly more ambitious goals.
Nowadays, against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis there is an inclination by some in the EU camp to renounce the normalization of relations with Russia as “business as usual”. Ironically, this is a point on which we happen to agree. A return to habits of the past will not remove the underlying reasons for the current escalation. If our relations are ever to be deemed strategic, they must finally begin to rest on sound principles – genuine equality, mutual respect and shared responsibility for our common neighbourhood.