Chizhov: Don’t ask me if Russia plans to have an ambassador in Edinburgh

Vladimir Chizhov [European Commission]

In a wide-ranging interview, Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the EU, spoke to EURACTIV.com about energy relations, sanctions and eastern Ukraine, multi-speed Europe, elections, referendums, covert action, and Donald Trump.

Vladimir Chizhov is a career diplomat. Before being appointed ambassador to the EU in 2005, he was Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Chizhov spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.

Are relations between Russia and the European Commission better than generally assumed? A few days ago, the Commission greenlighted the project for a Rosatom nuclear power plant in Hungary, and yesterday Commissioner Vestager apparently put an end to the “Gazprom probe”. There are also expectations that Nord Stream 2 will also receive the green light. Are relations indeed better than generally assumed?

I will have to disagree on two counts. One, Commissioner Vestager didn’t speak of relations with Russia. She spoke of certain relations between the Commission and Gazprom. Second, business is not normal. I would say our relations overall are today abnormal. Having said this, of course, I recognise and acknowledge progress on certain tracks. The one is that you mentioned, the Commission’s probe against Gazprom seems to have reached an understanding, a compromise. And there are other positive signs as far as our cooperation in the energy field is concerned. Though there are issues that still need to be clarified. But Gazprom is conducting its own business with the Commission and we as the Permanent Mission, maintain contacts with the Commission on a broader range of energy issues.

Other positive signs are that we cooperate successfully with the EU on a range of international issues. I will refer to the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear programme, which as we know requires concerted efforts by all signatories. And I think on this we share a lot with the EU. We maintain political dialogue on a number of tracks; we look forward to continuing consultations on anti-terrorism and other topical issues. But overall, the carefully built comprehensive institutionalised architecture of our cooperation is not working. The reason is that most elements have been frozen by the EU and our efforts even to undertake joint stock-taking of our relationship have not yet materialised, though specific proposals on that score were presented by President Vladimir Putin to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last June in St. Petersburg. That would be my overall analysis.

But to counterbalance the positive news from Commissioner Vestager, the EU decided the same day to prolong the personal sanctions in the context of the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

I would have called this an expression of a dialectical approach by the EU, but, unfortunately, it is not. Indeed, the EU has decided to extend for another six months a package of unilateral restrictive measures against Russian and Ukrainian citizens and some legal entities. And that, of course, is disappointing. Not that we were expecting a breakthrough at this stage because we understand that there are different views within the EU, which has the unfortunate result of the desire to maintain a single policy becoming a goal in itself.

This means basically that each time EU countries discuss sanctions, some of them say let’s ease or phase out the sanctions, while others argue that, on the contrary, sanctions need to be hardened as the situation on the ground has worsened. Consequently, the compromise is to renew the sanctions?

I think I can agree with your assessment. In effect, it’s the overwhelming wish to maintain unity, regardless of the substance of the position. But in this case, this doesn’t lead anywhere. The sanctions are extended for another six months, then in six months, the situation may either be repeated or if at last there is enough collective political will in the EU to start pulling itself from the corner that it has led itself into. Then we might see a change. I’m an optimist as you know, so I believe that at some point this critical mass of political will becomes reality, allowing the EU to change its course.

There isn’t much unity in the EU these days except on sanctions against Russia.

I agree with you again. There isn’t much unity on a quite wide range of issues. I even had some difficulty trying to define whether the European Council [on 9-10 March] indeed took place, or if it wasn’t a European Council at all.

Its conclusions were not official, in any case.

Well, theoretically a European Council can take place without any conclusions, but there was this very unusual phraseology used to the “quasi-conclusions…” But it’s not my intention to suggest or much less to provoke another issue where there would be disunity in the EU. I would be happiest if the whole EU changed its position regarding my country on the basis of common sense and logic. You see, this link between the so-called sanctions and the Minsk agreements, and I stress “so-called sanctions” because the only authority entitled by international law to impose sanctions is the United Nations Security Council, anything else is illegitimate…

This also applies to Russian sanctions against the EU.

There are no Russian sanctions. There are certain reciprocal measures which of course will be abrogated when the Minsk agreements are implemented. When I say there is no logic between the sanctions and the Minsk agreements, if you look back, you will see that this link was created much later than the sanctions had been imposed. First, the EU rushed toward imposing sanctions, and then as an afterthought asked itself, ‘Where is the exit strategy? What should we do to put a certain benchmark to review them? Oh, there are these Minsk agreements, let’s tie them to those.’ But the Minsk agreements are primarily between the parties to the conflict, namely Kiyv and Donbass. Kiyv is openly procrastinating the implementation, for a number of reasons, economic and political. But seeing the only burden of sanctions loaded on Russia, instead of the culprit of non-implementation which is Kiev itself, of course, they are interested in not doing anything. Because the longer the Minsk agreements are not implemented, the longer the sanctions will apply to Russia. This is a bizarre logic, I would say.

The Minsk talks are held in the Normandy format.

No, the Minsk talks are held in the Contact group, and the Normandy format is in support of those talks.

Russia ready to open up Ukraine talks to Trump

Russia has indicated it is ready to open the so-called ‘Normandy’ negotiation format over the crisis in eastern Ukraine to the United States, which appears to be a major shift in relations between Moscow and Washington after the election of Donald Trump.

In any case, the EU has delegated eastern Ukraine crisis management to two member states, France and Germany, who sit in the Normandy format, because this is believed to be more effective, rather than having all EU members, some of which, like Poland, dislike Russia for historic reasons. But why did you propose that the Minsk format be extended to the US?

Actually, we didn’t propose such a thing. The US was showing interest, before the elections, in engaging in the political process regarding the Ukrainian crisis, and we established direct bilateral contacts, involving representatives of the Russian Presidential Administration and the US State Department.

That was before the elections?

Yes, I’m not aware of any use of this format under the current administration, so I will refrain from comment on that. Basically, if everybody else agrees, we will not be against US involvement, in some way or another. Because we believe that Washington has potentially a lot of leverage on Kiyv. I say this not to diminish the role France and Germany have been playing and continue to play. But I believe the more pressure is applied on Kiyv, the better the prospects of Minsk implementation will be.

Basically, you expect the Trump Administration to be on your side.

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We don’t expect anybody to be on our side. We expect those who are genuinely interested in seeing a political settlement in Ukraine to be on the side of common sense, logic and on the side of the Ukrainian people as a whole, including those living in Donbass.

Another topic: there is a lot of talk about two-speed, multi-speed EU, Commission President Juncker published a White Paper as a basis for discussions expected to last until December at least. Does Russia have a preference for the EU being more compact or looking like a patchwork of circles?

Without direct reference to the White Paper, I will say that Russia’s interest is seeing the EU as a strong, reliable strategic partner, forward-looking and I would say independent in its decision making.

But it is becoming more independent, isn’t it?

Actually, some people that I speak to here in Brussels say Russia always wanted the EU to act on its own without following the Americans. Now if Trump abrogates the anti-Russian sanctions, the EU will keep them. This will be the show of independence. This is not the show I would like to see.

Let’s be realistic. The EU wouldn’t be able to keep the sanctions in such a scenario.

I could add one practical element to this. I think the economic damage inflicted on EU economies has been much greater than on the US economy. In those days, when we had full-fledged economic cooperation, the amount of our trade with the EU was 11-12 time bigger than our trade with the US. I used to call it the safety net of our relationship. Now this safety net has been torn in various places as a result of EU sanctions against Russia.

But the sanctions have not been an obstacle for major companies, like the German giants Mercedes or Siemens to start huge operations in Russia.

Yes. But they are an obstacle for other companies, primarily those heavily dependent on the financial sector. And even those companies whose activities are not covered by sanctions, particularly American sanctions, they would be thinking twice before engaging with Russian counterparts. I call this self-censorship.

It’s a psychological effect.

And it can be quite substantial and even decisive on many occasions.

Do you think that with a multi-speed Europe, the time will come when you will need several ambassadors to deal with the EU?

[Laughs] Well, if it’s a concentric scheme, maybe one ambassador will be enough. If there are several centres of power, as a consequence of devolution to the capitals, then we will see. But we have ambassadors in all the national capitals. Don’t ask me if Russia plans to have an ambassador in Edinburgh.

Actually, I’m asking.

Russia has over centuries had a special relationship with Scotland. St. Andrew is the saint protector of both Scotland and the Russian navy. The Russian navy has the same flag as Scotland. Only the opposite combination of colours.

They say Russia is influencing all the elections and referendums. How will the army of Russian trolls influence the new Scottish referendum?

[Laughs] Do you really believe that politics in Europe and the US have degraded so much, that any foreign country can influence the outcome of elections?

I believe all influential countries are trying to influence other countries’ elections. And I don’t think Russia invented the fake news because the Vietnam War started due to fake news.

Actually, the Second World War started because of fake news. There was an attack ostensibly on a German outpost by an SS squad dressed as Polish soldiers.

It’s not about who started it, but Russia’s covert action is very much in the spotlight.

Alleged covert action. Everybody says it’s covert, and nobody has seen it.

So is this alleged covert action going to influence Scotland’s decision?

You know, actually, I’m surprised that nobody has so far thought of blaming Russia for the Brexit referendum.

They blamed Trump, who is a friend of Russia.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. Trump is a friend of himself primarily, of his family and his country, the United States.