There is almost nothing left that can stop Russian annexation of Crimea. 'The train has left the station', says Günter Verheugen. Still, the former Enlargement Commissioner calls for dialogue and warns against escalation and an economic war.
Günter Verheugen is a former EU commissioner in charge of enlargement policy. He was responding to questions from Ewald König, editor-in-chief of EurActiv.de.
The interview below was translated from German. See original text here.
Is Crimea a lost cause? Will we have to get used to the status quo?
Neither here nor in the United States, was I able to find a policy that aimed at hindering a Crimean return to Russia – beyond the explanation that it is unacceptable. In my view, it seems the train has already left the station. Crimea will become a part of Russia.
We must consider the question: how is this consistent with international law? We are treading on very thin ice here. I found it very interesting, that Putin made an effort to present the compatibility with international human rights law in his speech. He even made use of arguments that the Americans used before the International Court of Justice when the legality of Kosovo secession was debated.
The Americans are a guarantor of Ukraine's territorial integrity according to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum but they have not done anything in this capacity and neither have the Brits.
The United States has changed its attitude; that much is clear. In the discussion between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, they recognised the legitimacy of Russia's security interests in the region. In my view they are right, because Russia does have legitimate interests there. I think we should also do this. It will become necessary to talk about one another's interests in order to find a reasonable balance.
Speaking with EurActiv.de, conservative MEP Elmar Brok held this against the Americans. What do you have to say about that?
I do not think that Elmar Brok meant to advise responding to the developments on the Crimea - which, as a matter of fact, did not begin this year - with a new Cold War, let alone with a hot war.
What should the Americans and what can the EU do, considering these three-level sanctions are not likely to have any impact?
Regarding the path that has been taken, I am already sceptical of the sanctions. Looking at previous rhetoric, sanctions so far have tended to fall into the category of "demonstrations of strong displeasure" rather than being really painful.
We are not yet at that point, but the escalation can continue. I warn against such escalations with the utmost urgency. What would we have gained, if an economic war turns out to be a Cold War and we end up in a new Ice Age? We need dialogue because we must be able to talk with Russia about how we can create lasting peace and stability for all of Europe.
A part of these sanctions is the list of travel restrictions for a relatively small group of oligarchs and freezing assets. Isn't that also problematic because it can occur quite arbitrarily?
I can only repeat: There was a very obvious attempt to find an instrument that could demonstrate, ‘we are not at all in agreement with what you are doing there, and you should take notice of that’. But not in a way that all doors are slammed shut!
But apparently the Russians are not at all concerned?
I do not know. If we analyse Putin's speech quite closely, we find a man who is bitter, disappointed, frustrated and who is speaking of the humiliation of his country. Even if they do not agree on this, Russia experts will not contradict me when I say that this feeling of humiliation and frustration is widespread within much of Russian society. So we must also ask ourselves, why?
Pessimistic observers already bank on Putin continuing in other regions with significant Russian-speaking minorities and that perhaps northern Kazakhstan, Transnistria, Georgia, Moldova and even the Baltic countries are at risk.
This kind of speculation over threats to Baltic countries must be confronted with the utmost determination. I see this as scaremongering. The Baltic States are members of the European Union and NATO. Russia did not express any opposition back then. But at that time, intensive talks were being conducted with Russia.
In the Baltic States there were Russian interests regarding rights for the local Russian minorities. We also had to settle the Kaliningrad issue, so that Lithuania did not spoil its future in the EU and simultaneously have to shoulder the cost of Russian interests. The negotiations were hard but they worked out.
I do not want to speculate about what could happen in the other countries. But the risk that certain forces in these countries feel empowered now, to do something similar as in Crimea and create results – there is a very high risk of that.
Do you sympathise with the fact that many Ukrainians, who fought on the Maidan Square for a European orientation, where blood was spilled, are disappointed in the EU?
I do not know what they could be disappointed about. Why should they be disappointed?
Because they expected harsher sanctions or stronger measures from the European Union but the EU has remained cautious.
That question must be answered by those who stood on the Maidan and showed solidarity with a movement, whose exact composition they might not even have understood. Amid all the appreciation for the Ukrainians, who were really concerned for a future of their country in Europe, we cannot overlook the fact that we were also dealing with forces that had something completely different in mind.
Bringing about a revolutionary situation to topple a legitimately elected government. I am referring to Svoboda, for example, which is in the government now.
In 2012, there was no doubt about its right-wing extremist profile in the European Parliament. At the end of 2012, the European Parliament viewed this party as incompatible with European values. That is why, on 13 December 2012, it strongly warned all democrats in Ukraine against cooperating with Svoboda in any way or forming a coalition with them. But due to domestic politics, that is exactly what happened. We simply accepted this, thereby legitimising a very serious breach of a taboo.
Often, we hear that the Svoboda influence on the Maidan, with nationalists and anti-semites, is just a propaganda trick from Moscow.
Moscow says Fascists are at the helm in Ukraine. That is wrong. But they share responsibility in the government, through Svoboda. In the age of the internet, anyone can look up the ideas Svoboda adheres to. Everyone should develop their own impression and read what Svoboda has said in the last few years on topics like Russia, Poland, Jews, Europe, first- and second-class people, languages and discrimination.
Compared to what Svoboda says, – when they are talking about a muscovite-jewish mafia or jewish pigs, for example – Jörg Haider's Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in 1999 was really a child's birthday party.
I refer to Austria specifically because the EU member states at that time – not the EU itself! – imposed some kind of sanctions against Austria. Back then, references were often made to the common consensus over fundamental values that we have in Europe. By accepting FPÖ into the government, it was said that Austria violated this common set of values.
But in Ukraine's case, it is much, much more flagrant and now a government with such people is even being offered political association. One of my successors, Stefan Füle, even spoke of the possibility of EU membership.
Speaking of EU membership: Do you see any chance that Ukraine could become an EU member state at some point?
In that respect Füle is right, that enlargement – at least so far – has proven to be an effective instrument to stabilise democracy and secure peace within Europe. The EU avoided this option in the case of Ukraine, which turned out to be a mistake. It meant, the European door was never really opened for Ukraine. But today, the situation is different.
Do you think this crisis situation - a possible threat of war - is having an influence on the European elections?
I think it is very probable. After all, we have not yet reached the end of these developments. We do not know what is still to come. After the decision in Ukraine, to allow people to arm themselves, we have come one step closer to civil war conditions. I am positive that this influences the European elections.
In what respect? That voters will become more aware of security and values in the EU and come together?
I cannot predict that. That depends on how public opinions in the various European countries evaluate the events.
For example in Germany I see that a thesis I also adhere to, is shared by many Germans. Namely, that we should not back an escalation, but rather deescalate; we should follow the path of understanding rather than being driven into a dynamic that offers no escape.
A clear line must be drawn between a justified and necessary Russia- and Putin-critical attitude of really criticising many things – and open animosity. Russia-critical does not mean animosity toward Russia! Understanding for Russian political interests does not mean cuddling up to the Kremlin.
I am aware of some critical remarks regarding an interview with you, claiming your assessment is influenced by former employment in a think tank under Yanukovich.
Excuse me? I never worked for a think tank under the Yanukovich administration, nor for anyone else in Ukraine. Whoever claims something like that is lying.