A few weeks ago, Crimea was annexed by Russia. It followed a regional referendum closely watched by Russian troops on Ukrainian territory in what is often deemed the most important European crisis since the end of the Cold War. Arnoldas Pranckevičius, External policies adviser of European Parliament President Martin Schultz, went to Ukraine many times on special missions before and during the crisis. In this interview, he sheds light on what it represents for the Europeans.
To begin with, what are the consequences of the Crimea crisis on the geopolitics of Eastern Europe according to you?
These consequences are major.
First, it challenges the very notion of sovereignty since the end of the Cold War. The crisis has also set a dangerous precedent for the redefinition of borders in Europe – a continent across which many borders are still contested.
Third, it has made a huge blow to the non-nuclear proliferation process across the world due to the violation of the Budapest agreement by one of its signatories [the Budapest agreement, signed in 1994 by Russia, Ukraine, the United State and the United Kingdom, is a diplomatic protocol that commits its signatories to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine], but it has brought back NATO in the front seat. Since 9/11, both NATO and the EU had been focusing on non-conventional threats, such as terrorism, cyber warfare or energy security; the Crimea crisis has prompted a renewed focus on the conventional defence capabilities.
Fourth, the Crimea crisis has introduced a new type of warfare in the 21st century: information and propaganda war. This is a war in which most battles take place for people’s minds and hearts, with only 10% of actions actually happening on the ground.
Lastly, it is the first conflict of the century where the occupying force had no insignia and where the occupying country refused to admit its authorship. We have a situation where the clear facts are contested, and responsibility is being avoided.
What about Ukraine and its path to European integration?
The de facto loss of Crimea is of course very painful to Ukraine. But despite daily ongoing provocations in its Eastern regions, the government has shown impressive restraint and wisdom and Ukraine still holds together - and more united than ever, I think. The Crimea scenario is very difficult to repeat in the East, where there is no critical mass necessary for Moscow-led provocations to succeed, and where the majority of population supports the unitary state. Russian president Putin may have paradoxically done exactly what he tried to avoid: the acceleration of Ukraine towards European integration. What was not possible just one month ago is happening these days.
Kyiv already signed the political chapter of the Association Agreement [Association Agreements are international agreements that the EU has concluded with third countries with the aim of setting up an all-embracing framework to conduct bilateral relations], while the deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement will be signed just after the early presidential elections [on May 25th]. The EU has proposed a 11-billion-euro aid package, the IMF is on its way to negotiate a 15-billion-dollar loan, and the US has already committed a 1-billion macroeconomic package as well. So we are witnessing an unprecedented mobilisation of international help to avoid Ukraine’s imminent economic collapse. We might also see by the end of this year the finalisation of the visa liberalisation talks, which will open the doors of the Schengen area to Ukrainian citizens. And the list goes on.
Same acceleration towards European integration applies to Moldova and Georgia. The EU has advanced the signature of Association agreements with them from August to June 2014. Moldovans will start travelling to the EU without visas as early as the end of April, and Georgians are also moving fast with visa talks. However, both countries might face renewed pressure from Moscow in the coming months to give up their European aspirations, therefore we should remain very vigilant in this coming period, which coincides with European elections.
What does the Crimean crisis entail for Russia?
The repercussions for Russia itself have been twofold, I think.
On the negative side, Russia found itself internationally isolated – even China abstained at the vote of the UN Security Council. The attacks on the fundamental notions of sovereignty and territorial integrity were ‘too much’. Also, the international reputation of Russia has suffered. Economically, Russia is going to pay the cost not only from the visa bans and assets freezes decided by the US and the EU, or possible further targeted trade and economic measures in case of further escalation, but also from the potential loss in future investments, from lack of trust of international markets and from taking over the financial bill of Crimea. Around 80% of energy and water supply of Crimea was so far coming from mainland Ukraine; around 65% of the budget was subsidised by the central government. This represents a new financial burden for Russia to deal with.
On the other hand, Putin has been emboldened and even strengthened by the Crimean operation domestically, with rising popularity and huge enthusiasm in the society. In many ways, this shows that if the Kremlin deems that costs are lower compared to the gained benefits, little can prevent it from going further – either in Eastern Ukraine, in Moldova, or even (the most unthinkable) in the Baltic States. The international community has therefore to be ready for the worst possible scenario. During his speech of the accession of Crimea to the Russian Federation, Putin repeatedly referred to the goal of reunifying the Russian-speaking world. This strong rhetoric, opposing self-confident, resurging, Orthodox Russia to a declining, decaying and demoralised West, shows that Crimea may only be a laboratory - a first step to discredit NATO as a military alliance, diminish the EU as a political project and prepare the return of Russia as a major global player.
Nonetheless, I think that the Crimea operation was a result of Russia’s weaknesses, not of its strengths. There are significant structural weaknesses in the Russian economy, which is heavily dependent on gas and oil, is embedded in systemic corruption and lacks any meaningful investments and modernisation, while key sectors of education, health care or social security remain dysfunctional and deeply corrupt. As we have witnessed it in history, a good way to boost your popularity when things are going not so well at home is to engage in a popular military adventure abroad, project your power externally in order to hide internal problems and mobilise public opinion – and that may be precisely what is happening right now.
For some, like MEP Alain Lamassoure, Europe has not defined a Russian foreign policy since the end of the USSR. Do you share this view, and if so, what kind of foreign policy should it be?
I agree with this statement. The Europeans have shown very little unity in their relations towards Russia, and Moscow has successfully divided and ruled over the continent. In a way, it is our fault: we invited such attitude. The Crimea crisis has particularly exposed the divergences between member states due to conflicting economic interests.
It is time we start to talk with one voice on energy matters, finish and fully liberalise internal energy market and create an effective external energy policy. If we can speak with one voice on commercial issues at the WTO, why shouldn’t we be able to do the same on a topic as vitally important as energy security?
Do you think it is possible?
Well, I am not sure if it is possible, but it is necessary. It is absolutely unacceptable in that while we should be in a position of strength, we are actually behaving from a position of weakness. If you look at the overall volume of energy trade, around 70% of Russian energy exports go to the EU market; but Russian energy represents only about 35% of all EU’s energy supplies.
Of course, the situation varies a lot among member states: Baltic States are nearly 100% dependent on Russian energy, Germany close to 40%, but you could go South and may find no dependence at all. But the various degrees of reliance on Russian energy across the EU are not the reason to impede a common European energy policy. If you look at the Baltic States, those are the ones who are calling for common action and strong sanctions against Russia – even if they know they will be the first victims of such situation.
What the Crimean crisis made also very visible, is that the EU acting as a soft power has been challenged with hard security dilemmas - and found itself quite weak in responding to it. We proved to be still very dependent on the US. But this cannot be sustainable in the future. We need to build a much stronger European defence, able to react in times of crisis.
We must also understand that we are not only a community of values: we have also our own interests, which need to be defended on the global stage. The Ukrainian situation asks the question of how to effectively combine our values and our interests. For each time we exit our European paradise of compromise and consensus and enter the jungle of realpolitik out there, our good will is used and abused.
Let’s talk about the transition government. Russian propaganda, but also many observers in the EU have shown concerns about the presence of far-right ministers in this government. Is it legitimate that the EU keeps on supporting it?
Well, first of all, this government is legitimate: it has been elected by the democratically elected Rada [the Ukrainian Parliament] with a constitutional majority. This is why the EU agreed to sign the Association agreement with this government. Without this legitimacy, it would not have.
Second, the mission of this transition government is not only to implement deep and difficult reforms, to consolidate the economy, it is also to preserve the unity of the country. So it naturally had to reflect different segments of the Ukrainian society and to involve not only the professionals, but also the various actors present in the Maidan protest movement – those who actually fought and paid a huge human price for change in Ukraine.
Regarding the far-right, only the Svoboda party is represented in the government. It was one of the three leading oppositions in the Maidan movement. Although it still belongs to the far-right, it has significantly distanced itself from previous anti-Semitic language. It has in fact proven to be quite a constructive player in the Maidan movement. Of course, it is important to ensure that no racist, xenophobic or anti-Semitic rhetoric is used by this government – but we have not seen any so far. Those branded as fascists by Russia, such as Right Sector and Common Cause, are not part of the government.
Currently, we can see the efforts of the new authorities to rein in the far-right factions. They called on them to give away their arms and to return to calm. This will be a difficult and painful process but a necessary one.
Just one more question. How to ensure that the Maidan revolution will not be politically confiscated and lost (somewhat similarly to what happens after the Orange revolution)?
After the Orange revolution experience, Ukrainian politicians are not allowed to fail twice. The political system needs to be renewed. One important issue is chronic and systematic corruption – one of the causes of the current crisis. Electoral and judicial reforms will be needed to reinstate the trust of people in the rule of law.
One must remember that the people in Maidan did not fight for Europe or for Russia.
They waged a battle for a better life in a country with an accountable elite, where human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected. If this government and the future ones are able to understand this call for human dignity, they will be successful and write a new page in Ukrainian history.
The content of this interview (carried out on Saturday 5 April 2014) does not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Parliament. Responsibility for the information and views expressed lies entirely with the interviewed official.
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Photography source: Arnoldas Pranckevičius