Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all let me give credit to the organizers of this forum for staging an impressive and very timely event at a highly sensitive juncture in European politics and economics.
The topic of today’s conference is both a complicated and stimulating one, as relations between Russia and the European Union have seen their ample share of ups and downs. Yet today our strategic relationship is facing an unprecedented challenge in view of the raging internal conflict in Ukraine.
The latest extraordinary meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council has confirmed our impression that, for all the lively internal discussions, the EU continues to have its hands tied by a vocal minority bent on a dogmatic course of confrontation with Russia. The two main components of EU reaction to the recent escalation in Ukraine – namely the extension of existing anti-Russian sanctions that were due to expire in March, and elaboration of a new targeted sanctions list – are, in my view, two steps in the same wrong direction. These measures will do nothing to allay the deteriorating situation on the ground, assist the civilian population in the zone of conflict or stabilize Ukraine economically. On the contrary, they serve to undermine the EU’s position as a potential neutral mediator in the conflict and further exacerbate its already stressed relationship with Russia.
Thus the Council meeting, in my view, represented another missed chance for the EU to break out of a black-and-white perception of a complex reality, in which neither of the parties to the conflict in Ukraine is above reproach. Let me remind you that at a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council in mid-December Russia warned that Kiev might be using the ceasefire established last September for rearming, resupplying and amassing its troops in the region. Proof of that was the failure of the Ukrainian side to respond to the Russian proposal, put forward by President Putin, to withdraw heavy armaments from the line of contact. Instead the Ukrainian side was busy constructing fortifications and minefields, flooding the region with regular troops, nationalist so-called “volunteer battalions” and hired mercenaries as well as stationing additional heavy artillery and rocket launchers close to the frontline. Several waves of mobilisation have been proclaimed and plans of militarisation of the Ukrainian economy unveiled. Furthermore, Kiev made no secret of its intention to economically isolate and starve out the areas controlled by the Donbass self-defence forces, including civilian population whom Kiev still considers citizens of Ukraine. Not only have pensions and other social benefits been withheld from local residents, but convoys with humanitarian aid travelling from Ukraine proper are prevented from accessing the region by the above - mentioned “volunteer battalions”. The number of refugees fleeing to Russia is again on the rise, swiftly approaching the 1 million mark.
As for the tragic events in Mariupol, let me be clear – we condemn this and other brutal acts, just like the mining of a bus in Volnovakha, the shelling of a trolleybus stop in downtown Donetsk and the most recent – of a humanitarian aid distribution centre. These and many other brutalities committed over the course of the Ukraine crisis warrant an in-depth and comprehensive investigation. Unfortunately, none has been completed so far. We were surprised that OSCE monitors, who rarely make direct accusations against parties to the conflict, have sprung to hasty conclusions about the perpetrators of the Mariupol tragedy. Sadly, this fits too well into the logic of creating anti-Russian uproars in the Western media in the run-up to key political junctures in the Ukraine crisis. But there is also a second side to the story – the relentless shelling by the Ukrainian forces of Donetsk, Lugansk, Gorlovka – the latter completely ignored by the West - and other cities, in which scores of civilians, including women and children, are dying with every day that passes. Nevertheless I have yet to see an EU statement expressly calling on Kiev to cease artillery bombardment of populated civilian areas.
Moreover, the conclusions adopted by the Foreign Affairs Council again do not feature any substantive criticism vis-à-vis the Ukrainian government. No wonder they have been perceived by the “party of war” in Kiev as a show of blanket support for their irresponsible criminal policies. This is despite clear evidence that Kiev has little intention of fully implementing its previously undertaken commitments: to launch direct and inclusive political dialogue with the South-East of the country, proceed with constitutional reform and devolution of power to the regions, withdraw paramilitary and mercenary formations from the zone of conflict, alleviate the humanitarian situation in Donbass and engage in the region’s economic rehabilitation. Meanwhile, in a grotesque turn, it is Russia that appears to be held solely accountable for the ongoing carnage in the South-East of Ukraine.
The confrontational approach espoused by the EU has obviously dealt considerable damage to the fabric of our trade and economic relations, which we had been painstakingly developing over the previous decades. During the period between January and November 2014 Russia-EU trade turnover was down by 11% in comparison to the same period of 2013. Ironically, Russia’s trade with the United States in 2014 grew by 7%, with Russian imports from the US surging by an impressive 23%. Thus we are witnessing a willful destruction of the economic “cushion of stability” in Russia-EU relations, which had been created precisely to avoid such political repercussions.
The situation is particularly confounded in the energy sphere. EU actions, in our view, largely contradict its own statements calling for cooperation in this area to be depoliticized.
First, Russia-EU Energy Dialogue has been largely frozen due to the crisis in Ukraine.
Secondly, the EU is evaluating the probable impact of a full cutoff of gas imports from Russia. And it is likely that only a negative expert assessment would prevent the EU from following this course of action.
Thirdly, EU unilateral sanctions pertaining to the energy sector have been adopted, despite previous statements by EU Commission members to the contrary.
Fourthly, thanks to efforts by the EU Commission, the implementation of the mutually advantageous “South Stream” project was blocked – and ultimately abandoned. Allow me to remind you that the proposal to abort this project was contained both in a resolution of the European Parliament of April 2014 and in the European Strategy on Energy Security published by the European Commission last May. Currently the EU Commission seems to have taken yet again a negative view on the recently announced “Turkish Stream” project under the undue influence of third countries.
Certainly, a policy of explicit double standards hardly does credit to the EU. Most recently, the Vice-President of the European Commission on the Energy Union, Maros Sefcovic within the length of one statement stated that the EU remains interested in Russia-EU energy cooperation, while at the same time naming Russia an “unreliable supplier”. The insincerity and inconsistency in EU actions in the energy sphere are commensurate of the level of trust, which the EU can expect in its relations with Russia.
The gloating from some quarters within the EU 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 dealt tangible damage to 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.
Overall, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the EU has in many ways shot itself in the foot, acting at the behest of its transatlantic ally against its own better interest and judgment. Even within the EU realization is growing that the spiral of sanctions, while being mutually disastrous economically, has not yielded the desired political effect. A number of EU capitals, including the new government in Greece, have started to openly speak out about the incompatibility of sanctions with their own national interests. It is equally reassuring that some high-ranking EU officials have begun pondering an “exit strategy” out of the current impasse – albeit without much success so far.
Nevertheless, these sensible voices continue to be drowned by an anti-Russian media frenzy in the West, the intensity of which is unparalleled ever since the Cold War. All too often we see that those politicians, academics and civil society figures who publicly suggest a rethink of flawed Western policies on Ukraine, are silenced and even discredited under the phony pretext that their proposals somehow fracture the Western “unity of purpose”. I leave to you the question of how this atmosphere squares with the spirit of democracy and pluralism, which we are habitually encouraged to emulate in Russia. Let us be clear - the path of unilateral sanctions must be abandoned if our relations are ever to regain a sense of normality. But the ball is firmly in the EU court. Russia has no interest in engaging in a tit-for-tat discussion on criteria for waiving EU sanctions, which we consider illegitimate in the first place.
Allow me to conclude on a more positive note.
Despite the current predicament, I continue to be a firm believer in Russia-EU strategic partnership. Russia as well as the countries belonging to the European Union are part and parcel of Europe. We will be forever united by geography, a shared history and millennial ties of language, religion and culture, as well as a common responsibility for security and stability on our continent.
In spite of EU sanctions, Russia and the EU maintain expert contacts within a range of sectoral dialogue formats - from space exploration and aircraft industry to science and technologies, to regional cooperation, to veterinary and phytosanitary issues. Sporadic contacts have taken place in the energy, transport, industrial and regulative dialogue formats, as well as in the fields of health and harmonization of technical standards. This is in spite of the fact that the overriding format covering all sectoral dialogues - the Partnership for Modernisation – has been blocked by Brussels.
We remain interested in cooperation with the EU in the field of science. The recently concluded Russia-EU “Year of Science” was useful in engaging Russian scientists in international research projects, which are of high priority for the research and development efforts of my country. We also consider the EU “Horizon 2020” programme to be a mutually advantageous and promising tool of cooperation in the field of science.
In what might seen bizarre to an uninformed observer, Russia and the EU have been cooperating in a smooth and quite constructive manner on a number of international issues, including such difficult ones as the Middle East peace settlement and the Iranian nuclear issue. And Russia’s contribution is universally recognised as indispensible.
The recent terrorist attacks in France have once again highlighted the real threats and challenges the European countries are facing today. There is no substitute for collective action in the face of transnational scourges of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, organized crime and drug trafficking. In order to combat these acute threats, Russia and the EU have invested substantial efforts into creating a complex architecture of channels of communication, ranging from summit meetings to practical cooperation between security, military and enforcement agencies. Yet today, thanks to the EU’s position on the Ukraine crisis, much of this work has come to a standstill. Meanwhile, the terrorists have not stopped cooperating.
But, above all, there is a need to inject the Russia-EU relations beyond the Ukraine crisis with some ambition, pragmatism and 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, this is a tall order and will require many years of strenuous effort to harmonize trade regimes. Yet, in my view this objective is a realistic one.
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 round to 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.
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 I 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 – together with respective countries – for our common neighbourhood.