In a wide-ranging interview, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna outlined her country’s EU and NATO agenda, the tense relations with Russia, the issue of vaccines and geopolitics.
Olha Stefanishyna, a lawyer by training, has been Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine since June 2020. She spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
You took part in the EU-Ukraine Association Council held yesterday (11 February) in Brussels. What are the highlights of the Ukraine-EU relations?
We couldn’t squeeze our agenda in one day, so we had to be here two and a half days with a fully booked agenda. We had the Association Council, we had meetings with MEPs ahead of the voting on the implementation of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, the kick-off of the European Green deal and Ukraine’s input into this process, we also formalized the revision and the update of the Association agreement, especially its trade part, we also reached a number of more specific agreements on law-enforcement cooperation and the fight against corruption and we signed an agreement with OLAF on the investigation of crimes related to EU money invested in Ukraine.
We also launched a very big program for cooperation with the College in Natolin which would teach our officers and our civil servants for the next two and a half years to work on EU policies. Overall attention was primarily on issues on economic cooperation, anti-corruption reform, as well as the security situation in the Donbas, that the pressure, the sanctions are preserved are enhanced.
We also discussed the visit of the High Representative in Moscow in the context of our bilateral relations and we dedicated a lot of time on the rule of law, as well as the geopolitically important issue of access to vaccines. We had a very intensive dialogue before this week and this was materialized in the re-selling of 1.2 million doses of Pfizer and Astra Zeneca vaccines from Poland to Ukraine.
Can you explain your country’s position regarding Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine? I understand that you have banned it for use. Probably this is on political grounds, because the EU seems interested in using it.
As we see it, there is no unified position of the EU and we share the view that the quality of the Russian vaccine is not proven. Ukraine is not looking in the direction of the Russian vaccine, because we are negotiating contracts with the recognized vaccine producers. In Ukraine, in other countries, in the Balkan region, the Russian vaccine has become another instrument of propaganda and a hybrid threat, integrated into the propaganda narrative that Russia stands beside you, while Europe has left you alone. As part of its efforts against disinformation and propaganda, the government has taken the decision not to register and not to grant access to the Ukrainian market of this vaccine, because at the level of the government negotiations to introduce this vaccine have never taken place, and this vaccine could only be introduced into the market via private circuits, without anybody guaranteeing the quality of this product. This is the official decision of the Ukrainian government, based on national security.
You mentioned the term ‘hybrid’. Could you mention some real hybrid threats to Ukraine, such as cyber-attacks?
Unfortunately Ukraine is a forepost for such experiences. We are also faced with huge disinformation distributed over the different regions, our security services have also discovered Russian activity on the Telegram social media, spreading anti-Ukrainian narrative. Last week the security and defence council of Ukraine took the decision to take down three television channels for their content: disinformation and propaganda, financed by the occupied territories and the Russian federation. To some extent the occupation of Donbas is hybrid warfare from the Russian federation. That’s why with Sputnik V, there was nothing new in the narrative.
Would you advise the EU not to use Sputnik V?
As far as I’m aware, the Russian authorities have addressed the European Medicines Agency for the registration of Sputnik V. So it would be up to your authorities to decide. But we are unofficially warning the EU that Sputnik V is 20% medical treatment and 80% hybrid threat and propaganda. And I’m sure that the amount of vaccines already bought by the EU is more than enough for making sure that each and every EU citizen, and also Ukrainian citizens, get access to vaccination.
Just to make sure: when you say 20% medical and 80% hybrid threat, this is not mathematics, this is a political statement, am I correct?
Regarding sanctions on Russia, you said you want them preserved and enhanced. This is actually on the cards, because of the Navalny case. What is your take on that?
This would be a democratic response to the Navalny case. Everything is wrong in this case and I am sure ordinary people in Russia protesting his imprisonment would support that.
Do you think that the EU had more illusions vis-à-vis Russia before the visit of Mr. Borrell to Russia than it has now?
We followed closely the High Representative report before the European Parliament. What I can say is that the High Representative had a phone call before the visit with the Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs and had a very substantive exchange on Donbas and Crimea. Despite the negative reactions after this visit, it is important for the EU not to have illusions about the Russian regime and about the perspective of its softening. I think this will be a very important signal for strengthening sanctions.
The issue of the occupied territories of Donbas is covered by the so-called Normandy format, but there is no similar diplomatic effort regarding Crimea. I learned that Ukraine is making efforts to change this situation, what are the new developments?
Indeed, by the initiative of the President we are planning to establish the Crimea platform as a multi-layer and multi-national forum for discussion to keep the international community’s attention focused on the occupation of Crimea by Russia, on the situation on human rights. The non-recognition should be materialized, by the end of August, the day before the 30th anniversary of the independence of Ukraine the first summit of the Crimea platform will take place, and we expect that the leaders that will gather in Kyiv for the summit will adopt a declaration where principle issues such as the non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea will be stated. Then the multi-dimensional format will be launched: inter-parliamentary dimension, inter-ministerial dimension, expert dimension, this will be an open format, not only within the EU, but to the world.
Council President Charles Michel is going to Ukraine next month, what do you expect from this visit?
He is coming on 2-3 March. One day of his visit will be dedicated to a visit to Donbas, with the President of Ukraine.
But not on the territory of Donbas?
Donbas is on both sides of the touch line. It will be on Ukraine-controlled territory. The other part of the visit will be in Kyiv and I think the focus will be on the reforms in Ukraine and we hope that the signature of the Common Aviation Agreement will take place at that time.
We didn’t discuss NATO…
Actually we have recently become an Enhanced Opportunities partner and we have presented the roadmap of our expectations from this format.
Your President Mr. Zelenskiy recently said that if he could ask one question to US President Joe Biden, that would be “Why Ukraine is not yet member of NATO”. Is this a realistic goal?
Just two days ago our Prime Minister had a meeting with NATO Secretary General and it was confirmed that the decision of 2008 of the Bucharest summit that Ukraine will become a member of NATO is still valid. No doubts about it, we are talking about a timing, and we expect the timing to be determined on the occasion of the NATO summit in autumn. It’s a matter of time and Ukraine is speeding up the legal transformations, we are well on track here.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]