Mr Ambassador, in 2019 you forecasted a new start of EU-Russian relations to be linked to a fresh EU-institutional cycle. Shortly after that, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has assumed office. How do you see the situation now?
Actually, it was less of a prediction; it was more an expression of hope. I hoped for a new positive impetus. But let me say so: I have been here for more than 15 years, and I already saw several of these EU-cycles. There were many ups and downs in our relations. One of your colleagues has asked me once if we would need a `reload button` for the EU-Russian relations. In those days, I instead opted more for an accelerator pedal. But now, we need some magic flute literally to bring our relations back to life.
The last EU – Russia Summit took place in 2014. The meetings stopped since the Ukraine crisis. What exactly has triggered the breach?
By January 2014 we have achieved a record of 32 summits between the EU and Russia's delegations. I personally attended 30 of them. The next meeting was planned in Sotschi in June of that same year, but the EU delegation did not show up. Many problems had been piling up long before that, so the Maidan crisis and Crimea events served as a significant catalyst rather than a starting point. The EU then attempted to act as a mediator in Ukraine between the government and opposition but failed in this task completely. In fact, it was openly humiliated by Ukrainian nationalists and extremists who trampled on EU efforts to facilitate a compromise.
Back to the present: At the EU meetings end of March 2021, Foreign Ministers and Chiefs spoke in favour of revival of the Iran nuclear deal. Other security issues may be an area of interest for the Russian Federation, too. Are there signals to sit down again, as some EU top diplomats have already aired?
Possible re-uptake of implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal is undoubtedly of interest for Russia, and we are cooperating with the EU External Action Service which is acting as coordinator of the JCPOA – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. More broadly we believe there is urgent need for joint efforts to revive European Security both as a concept and a practical issue.
And speaking of Russia – EU dialogue, yes, I already sense slight changes in the mood towards Russia among the various Member States; now, the EU bureaucracy here in Brussels should follow. It's not Russia that has shut any doors for dialogue, nor have we closed any venue here. Instead, the European Union has frozen almost all elements of our partnership architecture. There were two Russia – EU summits per year before, many different negotiation formats on various levels.
Moscow seems to favour bilateral talks with European Capitals over solid relations to the EU bloc. In what regard could a robust Union be of added value to the Russian Federation?
An independent solid EU could act as a major player in a multipolar world. The paradox comes up whenever we discuss European issues with individual Member States. Then we hear very positive voices. But as soon as they gather in Brussels… you know, something odd is in the air here. Maybe it is because of the weather?
Indeed it is raining too much in the EU capital. So, what do you think is happening precisely when the EU Member States flock together as a Union?
They produce strange things like so-called sanctions. After that, they are surprised when my Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, says that the EU cannot be regarded as a reliable partner. Do reliable partners sanction each other? Since the Biden administration came to office, many Europeans seem to have romantic emotions tied with the hope for improved EU – US relations. But these should not be at the cost of other partners, including Russia and China.
What is more relevant to the Russian Federation: a new strategic partnership with the EU, as the French President Macron has suggested or the robust economic relations with Germany?
Surely both. Let me quote what Chancellor Merkel once said: "We are destined to share the same landmass". I believe there is much more to share. It is a shared history, full of both good and bad experiences. We are part of the same civilisation. Europeans should not underestimate our ancestors' historic achievement, who expanded European culture boundaries to the Pacific coast and the border of China.
What is your take on a European map?
Europe as a concept and a geopolitical entity is much larger than the EU. That is one of the misunderstandings I encounter in Brussels on a daily basis. Here, erroneously an equation mark is put between the EU and Europe. Instead, I would say Europe goes from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
Which cooperation areas would currently offer the most starting points for reanimated EU-Russian relations?
Let's face some of the most prominent current challenges – the common enemy number one is this pandemic. I am very sorry that the international community has failed to generate a common response to this, not ideological, not political, but a tiny little enemy. Instead, we have an unhealthy competition between vaccines and different regulations. Then, climate change will not disappear. Things might be much less complex and challenging if the EU would not anticipate new restrictions that my country and others might regard as discriminatory.
In 2005 both partners established roadmaps of four common spaces concerning external and internal security, economic and scientific, technological and cultural cooperation. Should there be a new architecture in the negotiation formats?
There are many dots to be re-connected. We could have a lot of fruitful exchanges in the fields of science and technology, but also with cultural cooperation. Of course, we should continue the political dialogues on Iran and the Middle East. We are open for discussions on each partner's role in the Balkans, provided the EU does not claim the Balkans as its fiefdom. Russia has century-long ties with the Balkan nations.
Foreign Minister Lavrov has complained about alleged EU attempts to shove away the Russian language and culture from Europe. Could you explain what has led him to these remarks?
Sergey Lavrov has referred to the EU ignoring attempts to sideline Russian culture that we witness in several EU Member States, as is the case, for example, the disdain of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic countries, but also beyond the EU, in Ukraine. In Western European countries, we see that Russian journalists and Russian media outlets face some administrative problems in France or an ongoing case with Russia Today in Germany.
Could the grant of more Schengen-visa for Russian citizens improve the mutual understanding of civil societies?
Back in 2006 we signed a visa-facilitation agreement with the EU that is still in force today. Since then we were busy negotiating further travel freedom, but several times when we were close to success the EU backed down. And after the Ukrainian crisis this track was suspended by the EU, together with many others.
The Covid-vaccine Sputnik V has turned out very successful so far. Russia has put forward an application for it to be certified in the EU. What is your opinion about the Russian practice of a global vaccine-diplomacy with Sputnik V?
We are not in the business of vaccine diplomacy. Russia's primary task is to provide vaccines for the Russian population. However, being a responsible player in this medical field, as in others, we are open to cooperation. We are receiving many requests from foreign countries for samples, batches of vaccines and technology for their production. Actually, the global limiting factor is the capacity of production lines. No single country is in a position to immunise the entire world population. Cooperation is therefore desperately needed.