Ukraine’s Deputy PM: Unlikely Russian troops will ‘simply’ withdraw from our borders

Deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine Olha Stefanishyna. [Ukraine MFA]

Russia’s military pressure at Ukraine’s borders, targeted to destabilise the country and undermine its economy, is an illustration of the ‘new normal’ Vladimir Putin is trying to impose on world affairs, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna told EURACTIV.

Speaking to EURACTIV in Kyiv, with Russian troops amassed at the country’s borders, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said that “it is very unlikely that there will be simply an order to withdraw the troops from the Ukrainian border”.

“But as long as Putin is in negotiations with the West, it’s very unlikely for him to proceed with a military scenario on Ukraine, because basically, it wouldn’t be the very end of his existence,” Stefanishyna said.

“We should get clean on the fact that this is ongoing aggression, targeted to destabilise the country itself undermine its economy,” she said.

“This is basically the new normality Putin is trying to squeeze in into the international agenda,” she said, adding that “it’s equal to the military aggression, trying to undermine the country itself from within”.

This would also include sponsoring political parties and organisations, as well as the latest coup accusations by UK intelligence.

“Back in 2014, we never knew that the military aggression of Russia will be only in the Donbas, in Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, it might have very well been every part of the territory of Ukraine – so we stay prepared for that,” she added.

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While Ukraine is bracing for the worst, a possible Russian invasion, EU diplomats on Monday (24 January) regretted the US decision to evacuate diplomats’ families from Kyiv could be interpreted as a sign that the West accepts such a scenario.

Asked about what she would expect from Western partners, especially the EU side, Stefanishyna stressed that a clear and strong Western position on sanctions would serve as a credible deterrent towards Moscow.

“This would give the Russian leadership the sense of urgency that it’s not only statements and deep concerns, but they’re backed up with concrete actions,” she said.

However, asked whether it would make sense for the West to reveal sanctions options, something EU leaders had so far refrained from, Stefanishyna said “it’s not about putting everything on the table”.

“It is about showing that there’s real work down, not only the statements made,” she said, adding that according to her this would not mean to reveal all Western countermeasures but serve to become credible in threats of punitive actions.

Stefanishyna also stressed partners should think about how to support the economic stability in Ukraine, either by recently announced macro-financial assistance, but also by supporting Ukrainian companies by additional trade preferences.

German irritant

“In this time of crisis, the long-lasting rhetoric of Germans not willing to irritate Russia has become too materialised, and it has been put on the top of the list – not the interests of Ukraine, not peaceful settlement, not efforts of Ukraine to stabilise its economy, but our willingness to irritate Russia,” Stefanishyna said.

Her comments come after German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock rejected calls for Berlin to supply arms to Ukraine, citing a “historical responsibility” for Germany not to export weapons to conflict zones, but said Berlin was willing to provide technical expertise to help Ukraine defend itself from cyber-attack.

“It’s really important now to understand what’s on top of the list, and on top of this is not something that we expected to see,” she said.

Stefanishyna stressed the Normandy format would be important and the sides have agreed concrete steps within it.

“The agreements should be fulfilled,” she added.

“I don’t think that Germany can now lead on the Russian issue because it effectively has been leading the Normandy format over the past eight years and this has not resulted in any peaceful settlement,” she said.

Her comments come as political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany are set to hold ‘Normandy format’ talks in Paris later this week on Wednesday or Thursday, a possible precursor to a higher-level meeting.

Talks in the Normandy format to help end the conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have stalled since last November.

Under the 2015 Minsk Agreements, which ended full-scale war in the Donbas, the region was to receive broad autonomy within Ukraine, which Moscow hoped would serve as a veto on Kyiv’s pro-Western ambitions.

The accords called for a ceasefire, military disengagement and exchange of hostages and prisoners, and the resumption of socio-economic links between Ukraine and the Russian-occupied region of Donbas.

However, according to daily reports by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), ceasefire violations are happening on a regular basis.

Asked whether she expects the format to move towards a solution any time soon, Stefanishyna said Berlin and Paris”should try to bring Putin back to this format and hold him obliged to deliver a number of steps related to a peaceful settlement, including the ceasefire”.

EU pledges cyber support to Ukraine, pins hopes on Normandy format

Amid tensions with Russia and after a massive cyberattack, EU foreign ministers pledged additional support to Ukraine on Friday (14 January). France and Germany, meanwhile, aim to restart efforts to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow.


NATO clarity?

Asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t already have achieved what he wanted with EU and NATO membership chances waning due to current tensions, Stefanishyna said “there is a number of mixed perceptions in Ukraine”.

“We highly appreciate the strong unity of allies in NATO, confirming unanimously that there’s no room to discuss any other elements of the open door policy in NATO,” Stefanishyna said.

“But again, we lack the clarity in terms of the further steps, and it’s absolutely crucial that during the next NATO summit in Madrid this year clarifies open questions,” she added.

According to her, one would involve NATO’s upcoming strategy update, the Strategic Concept, to “preserve the same strong rhetorical against Russian aggression”.

“The second essential element for us is that we treat the absence of any clarity in terms of the next steps toward membership as a weak position of the NATO vis a vis Putin,” she said, in reference to legal guarantees Moscow had demanded for the alliance to commit to stopping its enlargement to the East.

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