In a wide-ranging interview, Russia’s Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov spoke about gas transit talks with Ukraine, NATO and EU enlargement, nuclear arms control, Russia’s sales of the S-400 anti-aircraft system, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Brexit.
Vladimir Chizhov is a career diplomat. Before being appointed Ambassador to the EU in 2005, he was Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev on 14 November 2019.
Is there going to be a gas crisis? The long-term contract for gas transit via Ukraine expires at the end of December, and there is no new contract…
[Smiles] I thought you would first of all ask me about the brain death of NATO.
We will come to that, I was planning to ask.
It’s good that there are people for whom Russian gas is more important than NATO. All right, let’s take gas first. Actually we are in constant contact on bilateral level with Ukraine, and the Commission. Actually this negotiation consists of three elements. When we talk about a package, this means we want to see three issues resolved together, in a package.
One is the Stockholm arbitrage.
Stockholm is only one element. There are also some really crazy decisions by the Ukrainian anti-monopoly authority, piling another 6.5 billion dollars for Gazprom allegedly having a dominating position in gas transit. But Gazprom doesn’t own the transit system. It buys services from Ukraine. It doesn’t offer services to have a dominating position. This is pure absurd.
And then, as I understand, Naftogaz of Ukraine is contemplating another lawsuit of 11 billion dollars. These are figures taken from the clouds. We want to see this resolved in an agreed manner, and we hope that will happen…
Hopefully before the end of the year?
Well, this issue is obviously not up for Naftogaz or the newly created MGU (Trans-pipelines of Ukraine), the result of unbundling. Neither is it for the Ministry of Energy of Ukraine to resolve. There will have to be a political decision higher up.
The second element relates to direct supplies from Russia to Ukraine. And the third element is securing the transit. Transit meaning both volumes and tariffs. Why are they linked? Because from a technological point of view, say in a warm winter, the EU consumers may order a smaller volume of gas. But in order to pump the gas, there is a minimum level…
The so-called technical gas.
Yes. What Gazprom is offering is this package deal, including certain discounts on gas supplied to Ukraine, in comparison to what Ukraine is paying for Russian gas they are getting through reverse flows from EU countries.
Meaning that the gas they will get directly from Russia will be cheaper than the gas they get via the reverse flows…
Nevertheless, there is no agreement.
Not at this point. But we are hopefully inching towards that.
Of course, one element hindering the process is the pace at which Ukraine is implementing European legislation. Because, as was confirmed just yesterday (14 November) in Brazil by President Putin, we are prepared to work either on the basis of European legislation, or on the basis of Ukrainian legislation.
We would be happy with either, provided that the whole system is implemented and certified by the European Commission. We still have 5-6 weeks to go before Christmas. I think this is enough time, with the necessary political will, to resolve all these outstanding issues. But hypothetically, we cannot exclude that there may be some hiccups.
Do you think that the process requires decision-making at the top level – like Presidents Putin and Zelenskiy? Would a summit help, there has been a lot of talk about a Normandy-type summit? Of course, it’s about the crisis in Eastern Ukraine, but still the leaders can meet and talk about other issues as well.
It’s up to the Ukrainian side to decide at which level they take decisions. For us, any level will be good, provided they deliver on the issue. If they need the level of President – perfect, if they need the level of Prime Minister – great. If they would need a discussion in Parliament, then I would be a little worried, looking at how the Ukrainian Parliament works.
To sum up, we can hope that there will be no disruptions on the EU .
There will be no disruptions due to any decisions taken by the Russian side. We are ready for cooperation.
Now about the ‘brain death’ of NATO…
I was speaking recently to a colleague of yours, I was asked this question, and my answer was fairly short: in order to suffer brain death, you need to have a brain in the first place. [Laughs]
I still hope I will get a better answer. I wrote NATO is dead a long time before President Macron said it. It was on the occasion of the July 2018 NATO summit. It was clear to me that Article 5 probably no longer applies…
Well, I would say NATO has been on life support since 1991, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. It has been artificially maintained, during several years, by outreach to Afghanistan, and when that was finished, NATO started looking around for a raison d’être.
The very fact that the possibility of having local wars is discussed, shows that there is no fear of a nuclear holocaust…
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t say that the threat of nuclear holocaust has totally disappeared. Because what we see is the dismantling of the arms-control systems created in the previous decades. First, the Americans abrogated the ABM treaty, then the INF treaty, now they are poking at the Open Skies treaty. Different options are being floated.
For the INF treaty, Russia was blamed.
Well, they always blame others, most often the Russians. The fact is that there is practically one big element left: the START-3 treaty, which expires in February 2021.
We have been signaling to the US that in the absence of a new treaty – because they are not negotiating a new treaty – we should work on prolongation of the existing one, for a certain period, during which we could sit down at the negotiating table and negotiate something better.
But leaving a void in the area of nuclear arms control would be inexcusable.
But in the meantime Russia is building hypersonic missiles that didn’t exist before.
Well, we may address concerns of all parties in the future treaty, yes. But one of the motives of the current US administration is not Russia, it’s China. They want to expand the existing legal basis of nuclear arms control to China.
But when the Chinese are asked, their reply is quite unambiguous. They don’t want to be part of it. If at some point China is included, then of course the logical question would arise: what about the United Kingdom and France – other nuclear powers? You would say they are potentially much smaller than the US or Russia, but so is China.
And you have India, Pakistan, Israel…
Right. If we are talking about a multilateral agreement, perhaps we may live until that day when this will become possible. But let’s face the acute problem of today. I’m not even talking of resurrecting the INF treaty. Evidently the US doesn’t want to hear about it. But preserving the START-3 treaty is an immediate issue that needs to be faced.
The former President of Kazakhstan suggested a summit between the US, Russia, China and the EU – he didn’t say UK and France. But the topic was precisely world security. What is Russia’s take on that?
Well, we pay tribute to President Nazarbayev’s efforts on a number of issues. His most recent initiative was to mediate in organising a bilateral summit between Putin and Zelenskiy. The situation may come to a point when a 4-party meeting may be feasible, but it looks like not at this point.
How does this complex situation reflect on the Balkans? What does Russia fear from NATO enlarging on the Balkans?
Russia fears nothing from anyone.
But if the US move their nuclear bombs from Incirlik (in Turkey) to Camp Bondsteel (in Kosovo)?
To Camp Bondsteel? Ha! They would be in gross violation of existing international obligations on (nuclear) non-proliferation.
Why is Camp Bondsteel such a huge base?
Moreover, Trump dislikes overspending abroad, but Bondsteel seems to be an exception.
Well, he had withdrawn troops from Syria, and then he has reconsidered. Now they are ostensibly needed in North-Eastern Syria to guard oilfields. Whose oilfields?
Let’s stay in the Balkans. Why is Russia so determined to stay anchored in the Balkans?
Russia has never left the Balkans. Since the 19th and even the 18th century. We all know the history of the many Balkan wars, including the history of Greek independence the 200 years of which the country will celebrate in 2021. [the “Greek Uprising” of 1821 was the start of a successful war of independence waged by Greek revolutionaries against the Ottoman Empire between 1821 and 1830.] The Greek liberation movement started in the Russian Empire, in the beautiful city of Odessa.
What is the Russian reaction to the disappointing news for North Macedonia and Albania from the last EU summit, which couldn’t decide opening of accession negotiations?
It’s between the EU and those two countries. It’s up to the EU to judge if those two aspiring countries are ready or not. With the benefit of hindsight, you could ask whether Bulgaria and Romania were ready when they joined.
The historic momentum was different.
Yes, indeed, the environment has changed. We are speaking of an EU which is now shrinking, not expanding.
You mean Brexit. But precisely the departure of the UK allows the French President to push for another type of EU, one element being changing the rules of enlargement. Is this what you mean?
I wasn’t very surprised when that decision [not to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania] was made public. Judging by many circumstances, to say that they have fulfilled all conditions would have been an obvious exaggeration.
It’s up to them, and also the other non-EU countries in the Balkans, to take their sovereign decisions, whether they still want to join the EU, or maybe they will choose other paths in their history. It’s up to them as it’s up to the EU whom to accept or not.
I would like at this point to remind you that we view EU enlargement as an objective process, as a regional dimension of globalization. Which makes it very different from NATO enlargement. NATO enlargement is an attempt to address security challenges of the 21st century with means and mechanisms of the mid-20th century, created for a different purpose.
North Macedonia is well on its way to joining NATO…
Will it make NATO stronger?
I doubt. And I don’t think North Macedonia is encountering immediate threats to its national security.
But maybe it does. You have been there, as Special Representative of Russia to the Balkans at the time of the Ohrid agreement, when this country was in a very precarious situation…
Yes, but that was mostly because of internal problems, rather than external. The Greeks or anybody else never wanted to invade North Macedonia, let’s face it. But the problem they had domestically with the Albanian minority, yes, they were there. And I’m afraid still are.
Why is Turkey buying Russian anti-aircraft weapons, the S-400?
Because they are very good [smiles]. They are much better than the American ones. See what happened in Saudi Arabia.
Isn’t it because S-400 will allow Turkey to wage a war with another NATO country, which is not possible with US equipment?
You mean Greece?
Well, Greece already has Russian anti-aircraft systems.
Of an older model.
Just smaller, S-300.
So they can wage a war.
No, the S-400 and S-300 are both defensive, anti-aircraft systems. You cannot launch an attack with them.
But during a war such a system is effective against airplanes from a NATO country.
It is very effective, much more effective than the American ‘Patriot’ and others. And so what?
NATO aircraft and Patriot anti-aircraft missiles have a friend-and-foe system which prevents hitting an allied plane. Russian equipment bought by NATO allies makes a war possible between them.
You are suggesting the perfect solution. Let both Turkey and Greece buy Russian military airplanes [laughs].
But this makes war more possible.
No, come on, be serious.
So many issues we can discuss… I will skip Syria, but I have Brexit…
Ask me about the Berlin wall.
What do you want to say?
Actually, I was very disappointed with those so-called celebrations.
Why? Was there a difference between the 20th and the 30th anniversary?
It’s the context. Somebody said these days, that without the European Union the Berlin wall would never have gone down. That’s what I mean when I say some people are re-writing history.
For me it’s clear that without Gorbachev, the wall would not have fallen, at least not in 1989 and not in a peaceful way.
But did anybody, including Chancellor Merkel and other EU leaders, mention the role of the Soviet Union then, and of its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the events linked to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany? Not a word. There were messages of thanks to the US, to the UK and France.
But people of our age remember well what was the position both of Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand on German reunification. They were dead against. Had it not been for Gorbachev it would not have happened then.
So Russia feels offended.
We are concerned that history is being re-written.
Maybe because the victors write history. Let’s face it: the fall of the Berlin Wall was a victory of the West.
I see it differently. I would say it was a victory of common sense. And so it was our common victory.
Sounds good. But let me ask you about MH17. There have been new revelations, phone intercepts.
Oh, really? New revelations, seriously? Maybe, at first they should better consider the large volume of evidence produced by the Russian side and offered to this Joint Investigative team. I believe that the current attempt to resuscitate this half-cold case, with all due respect to the victims and their families, looks very much like an artificial attempt to revive it for current political purposes.
And stop what can be seen as a momentum initiated by President Macron to improve relations with Russia?
And possibly progress in the Normandy format. As well as some progress, hopefully, in Russian-Ukrainian relations.
Under the new president Zelenskiy. You seem to like him.
It’s not a matter whether I like him or not. But I have sympathy for him, because he got into this mess totally unprepared. The only background that he had was from those TV series that brought him to the presidency, let’s face it. On the other hand, as somebody said, that many countries in the world are led by comedians… At least this one is a professional [laughs].
So you are optimistic on Ukraine?
Moderately. I think Zelenskiy’s problems are around him. When a few of weeks ago he went to Donbas, the government-controlled part of it, and started speaking as commander-in-chief to the military guys, including the so-called voluntary battalions, they told him – Who are you, go to hell. No respect.
It was not the case for Poroshenko.
Poroshenko commanded more respect?
Maybe he looked more impressive, particularly in military fatigues. But for those paramilitaries appearance doesn’t make much difference, I think. It is clear however, that if Zelenskiy doesn’t manage to change the overall political environment in the next few months, then his moment will slip away.
Can Zelenskiy be destabilised by the Trump impeachment affair?
I think Trump faces a greater risk of being destabilised than Zelenskiy.
Even if hard evidence is found that Zelenskiy ordered research on Biden Junior?
I don’t think this would have huge significance for the Ukrainian electorate. Meanwhile, I don’t know what will happen to my neighbour [US Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s Brussels office is close to Chizhov’s]. It looks like he has become more popular than he would ever wish.
At least everybody knows his name. But let me ask you about the Eurasian economic union (EAEU).
Well, against the background of a shrinking EU, the Eurasian union is growing.
Is there a momentum for another type of relations between the EU and Russia, via the Eurasian economic union? The President of the Hungarian Central Bank said the euro was a mistake and went as far as imagining a common currency between the EU and EAEU…
Now, that’s a long shot [laughs].
But the Hungarians seem to like the idea of rapprochement between EU and EAEU…
Well, yes. As I see, the idea that closer cooperation between the two unions and between the two executives, the two Commissions, is gradually seeping into the minds of more and more people in this part of Europe.
You know, I’ve seen a certain evolution of the EU approach. From total ignorance to a stage of apprehension combined with curiosity, and then to genuine interest. We have managed to launch regular expert-level consultations between the two Commissions, though not at the political level yet – that would require certain change in EU policy.
And also the business communities on both sides have shown great interest in closer cooperation. I was in the beautiful city of Verona a couple of weeks ago for the already 12th annual Eurasian forum. There were people from member states, many from Italy of course, from both Commissions, and from the business community. Last March we organised a reach-out session of this forum in Brussels, and we plan another one next March. You are invited.
Thank you. Let me ask you about Brexit: the UK leaving the EU would require re-working trade agreements with third countries such as Russia, is this correct?
Brexit is a process in three stages. We are still at stage one: the divorce deal. Stage two is the future trade deal between the EU and the UK. And negotiating that may be more difficult and more controversial. The EU has managed to show impressive unity at stage one, but I’m not at all sure that this unity will be maintained through stage 2. And then stage 3 will come: re-negotiating agreements with third countries.
Not only Russia.
But for Russia, what does it mean?
I will give you an example. We have certain quotas for exporting, say, metals, fertilisers, to the EU, which have been calculated on the basis of EU 28. They will have to be re-calculated for 27.
Is it a lot of work?
Not an unsurmountable amount for Russia, but looking around the globe… India, for example, due to understandable historical reasons, has the UK as entry point for its exports to the EU. That will be a lot of problems…
I got your message that the worst of Brexit is yet to come. Are you one of those who believe the conspiracy theory that Brexit was designed to destroy the EU?
No. It looks more like a plan of self-destruction of the United Kingdom.