Article by Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov for EP Today
The crisis in Ukraine has become a moment of truth in the relationship between Russia and the EU. Will we be able to jointly master the dangerous course of events in our common neighbourhood, or will it drive us apart?
Our view of the situation is clear. The violent coup d’etat in Kiev committed in February in breach of an EU-brokered arrangement, hurled into power a host of individuals with highly questionable democratic credentials. Some of them are self-confessed anti-Semites, racists and neo-Nazis. Under undue influence from certain foreign players the current Kiev authorities are exhibiting flagrant disrespect for the legitimate interests and aspirations of their fellow compatriots. They are fuelling malicious xenophobic discourse of confrontation and hatred. Moreover, they seem to be set on a military campaign to forcibly suppress popular dissent in the East of the country.
We had genuinely expected the April 17th Geneva accords to open the way towards a comprehensive political settlement within the country and accelerate a broad and inclusive constitutional reform, thus promoting linguistic pluralism and devolution of powers to regions. To our dismay the Kiev authorities and their Western sponsors utterly distorted the provisions of the Geneva arrangements. They pretend that it is only self-defence units in the East of the country that need to be disarmed, not the ultra-right radicals from the “Right Sector” who continue to maraud the country. They demand that buildings and streets in Eastern Ukraine be vacated, while inventing ridiculous reasons for central Kiev to remain occupied by armed gangs. This is a road to nowhere which may lead to further escalation of the situation on the ground. A single spark will suffice to launch a full-fledged civil war.
In the light of all this it is now clear that Russia’s decision to acknowledge the democratically stated will of the people of Crimea to seek reunification with Russia in accordance with the norms of international law was the right choice at the time, preventing mass bloodshed on the peninsula.
Meanwhile we are puzzled by an unprecedented wave of Russophobia, which has engulfed European press. Stereotypes employed by unscrupulous journalists are unparalleled since the eve of the mid-19th century Crimean war, when British press, influenced by Lord Palmerston and other notorious Russophobes, urged war against Russia - a “despotic civilization, crawling on the boundary of animality like a herd of fanatical beasts”, bent on “policies of rape and pillage, brigandage on a vast scale”.
We should be wary of doom-mongers and jingoists who hark back to the wayward times of “Realpolitik”, colonialism and gunboat diplomacy. Over the previous decade Russia and the EU invested considerable political effort in building up mutually advantageous and forward-oriented ties of strategic partnership. Since then our trade volume has tripled, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across Europe. Russia is and will remain for the foreseeable future Europe’s top energy supplier. Cross-border travel by Russian and EU citizens is setting new records. More importantly, a prolific process of mutual cultural and social enrichment is taking hold. Demolishing this Russia-EU economic powerhouse, which both sides painstakingly sought to create, would do naught to alleviate the unfolding catastrophe in Ukraine - a country which, thanks to reckless criminal policies of the regime that has prevailed in Kiev by force, is now balancing on the verge of becoming a failed state in the middle of Europe. On the contrary, such hasty actions may deprive us of a much-needed economic “cushion of stability”, which up until now has been instrumental in shielding our relations from political discord. Moreover, calls for sanctions, thinly-veiled threats and confrontational rhetoric breed complacency, exempting their heralds from the acute need to engage in intense diplomatic efforts at all levels.
It is time to acknowledge: ongoing events amply attest to the failure of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” policy. It has compelled Ukraine and other countries of the region towards an artificial geopolitical choice that they should never be making. But what has become evident to an even greater degree is the joint inability of Russia and the EU to substitute a zero-sum-game Cold War mentality for an inclusive vision of “a Europe whole and free” from Lisbon to Vladivostok. In retrospect one is hard pressed to comprehend Western motives in disregarding repeated Russian calls for reforming the OSCE (which remains the single most embracive security framework in the Euro-Atlantic region), concluding a European Security Treaty or gradually constructing a pan-continental economic and humanitarian space. Had these ideas received serious hearing by our partners, not only would we now be in charge of a potent crisis management toolkit, but the entire issue of geopolitical and economic alignment of post-Soviet states would most probably have become irrelevant.
In my view, the Russia-EU strategic partnership, if it is ever to get re-loaded, needs to be backed up by a shared and unambiguous long-term vision of the relationship. I remain convinced that as neighbours with a common cultural heritage Russia and the EU are natural partners, presiding over a total landmass of 21 million square kilometers, a market of 650 million people and an abundance of energy resources. Our core interests are closely aligned – namely, to modernise and enhance competitiveness of our economies, promote social cohesion, ensure indivisible security across the Wider Europe as well as maintain global and regional stability on the basis of international law. Pooling our technological and industrial assets as well as highly qualified human resources would, in our view, offer a significant boost to Russia’s and the EU’s internal development and enhance our competitive edge in the global economy. However, if the robust economic and social fundamentals of Russia-EU relations continue to be decoupled from our political rapport, we will remain plagued by what Javier Solana termed “strategic mistrust” and lingering stereotypes. On the eve of the centennial anniversary of the First World War the narrative is eerily familiar.
Finally, coming back to Ukraine, was it wise of the EU to have outsourced settlement efforts to “allies across the ocean”, who clearly have dissimilar interests with the EU, whose involvement is stoking historical sensitivities across the region and who would only gain – both politically and economically – if Russia and the EU are pushed towards a confrontation? Time will tell. In our view, the ongoing Ukrainian crisis is a European problem warranting a collective European solution. There is still a chance for diplomacy to defuse the ticking time bomb in our common neighbourhood.