Chizhov: Russia stands ready to cooperate with the new Commission

Chizhov spricht von ukrainischen "Kriegstreibern", die den Friedensprozess gefährden. Foto: Georgi Gotev

Russia is fully prepared to reinvigorate its relations with the new European Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview. “I would suggest that we should not concentrate on slogans, or debate whether our relationship is strategic or not, but rather look into the substance”, the diplomat said. 

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.

We are speaking on Monday, 20 October, two days after the meetings in Milan involving Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, and several Western leaders, including Commission President José Manuel Barroso. The reports about this meeting often call the results “confusing”. I must say the meeting with the leaders and their translators at a round table looked hectic on TV. What is the Russian reading of the results?

Actually, it wasn’t a single meeting, it was a series of meetings in various formats; round tables of different diameters, perhaps rectangular tables, or just plain sofas. There was a meeting as you rightly said in the form of a “working breakfast”, at which in fact nobody ate. There was another meeting, a closer one, in the so-called “Normandy format” [after the meeting held in France on 6 June], which included four leaders: the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, France and the German chancellor.

Summing up, the discussions were in our view helpful, they were positive in the sense that they focused on promoting a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine. They didn’t paper over the differences that remain, and the differences are quite significant, regarding both the origins of the crisis and the current state of play.

But I think everybody by now agrees that the crisis in Ukraine needs a political solution and there can be no military solution. And that the fragile ceasefire needs to be enhanced and all fighting should really stop. And that the agreements about creating a buffer zone between the conflicting parties should be implemented, both on the map and on the ground. And that the humanitarian and economic aspects of the crisis should be addressed.

That’s as far as the situation in the East of Ukraine is concerned. There are also other issues, also linked to the current situation in Ukraine, that were discussed, including the now famous issue of gas supplies which will be in the focus of attention tomorrow [21 October] here in Brussels at the tripartite ministerial meeting between Russia, Ukraine and the European Commission. From the Commission side, the Vice-President for Energy Mr Gunther Oettinger is participating.

Probably for the last time in that capacity.

Well, I don’t know, there is still time until the end of the month [the new Commission is expected to take office from 1 November]. But actually there were bilateral meeting on these issues in Milan as well.

What was reported was that an intermediary price of $385 per thousand cubic metres was agreed for Ukraine…

That’s an interim solution for the winter period.

Isn’t it a price pending the decision of the Stockholm arbitration tribunal, after Russia and Ukraine decided to resort to international arbitration to review their gas contracts?

The understanding is that $385 will be the price until the end of March. Whether by that time the Court of Arbitration will have decided, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody does.

Another element of the agreement appears to be that Ukraine pays Gazprom $3.1 billion before the end of this month…

Indeed, and this includes arrears from last year, the two last months, November and December, and of course those related to the second quarter of this year. This is an uncontested sum. I understand that the only problem is for the Ukrainian side to actually find the money, and they are counting on international support, IMF and other sources.

Based on this agreement, Ukraine could possibly survive the winter. In the meantime, the Commission has published a report evaluating if the EU could survive without any Russian gas supplies. Don’t you think this scenario is a little exaggerated?

It’s a purely hypothetical scenario, more related to science fiction.

Because even during the Cold War gas from Russia was flowing safely to the West…

Of course, you can have all sorts of scenarios like aliens drinking all the oil, or the Islamic State destroying all the pipelines. But there is no ground for anybody in this part of Europe to believe that Russia would stop its gas supplies to European customers.

As far as the routes are concerned, there is Nord Stream [a pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea], which is fully functioning, and regarding South Stream [a planned pipeline to bring Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Serbia and further to Italy] we notice a somewhat unwelcome reception in EU quarters. But its basic philosophy is the same; to provide energy security for Europe.

But there are some legal problems concerning South Stream. The Commission said it would try to help solve them. What’s the state of play there?

I don’t know, I hope they haven’t shifted all their resources to solving those hypothetical scenarios (laughs). I hope they are still concentrating on practical matters.

But to solve the problems with South Stream those bilateral agreements Russia signed with the several EU countries would need to be changed. Does Russia agree to such an approach?

Indeed, with all the countries involved in the project, Russia has bilateral intergovernmental agreements. Of course it’s up to those countries to solve the issue of compatibility of those agreements with the acquis communataire of the EU. Perhaps it would be easier to adapt the acquis communautaire rather than the whole package of intergovernmental agreements.

There will be a new Commission and you may like to sell them this idea. But regarding South Stream, the Commission keeps saying “Russia hasn’t asked from an exemption from the Third Energy package”. Why doesn’t Russia ask for an exemption and try to solve the problem via such an exemption?

Russia is not in the position of asking for something or begging somebody. The issue was indeed on the agenda of a working group established within the framework of our energy dialogue. And we have been deliberating the issue, inconclusively so far. I understand that provided that there is political will on both sides, and there is no lack of political will from the Russian side, this is achievable.

Is South Stream a political project? It is going to be very costly. Is it wise to spend so much money, unless you pursue very important political goals?

It’s an economic project. As I said, the whole philosophy behind both projects, Nord Stream and South Stream, is to provide energy security for Europe. I am not revealing any secrets if I say there are economic considerations on the Russian side, because export of gas and oil to the EU is a major source of revenue.

Speaking about revenue, did the Western sanctions hurt Russia a lot?

First of all, I would be cautious about calling them sanctions. Sanctions from the point of view of international law is something that only the UN Security Council can impose. These unilateral restrictive measures in that sense are not in line with international law and one could call them illegal.

I understand your question refers to the economic package. I wouldn’t say that the restrictive measures haven’t produced any effect. There are joined projects that have been underway, with European companies, with American companies. Of course, one may bend the rules of logic and try to find a link between Arctic drilling and events in Ukraine. Arctic drilling was an area where there were several long-term projects including major energy companies from the EU, the USA and Norway.

The Russian economy will certainly not collapse from these restrictive measures. These measures will not change Russia’s policy on Ukraine. Actually since the measures were introduced President Putin’s popularity with the Russia public opinion soared to unprecedented levels.

From a practical point of view, whenever one thinks of introducing such measures, those who do that should have first of all an exit strategy, or keep in mind what they do next should the measures fail to produce the desired effect. I have a feeling that the EU hasn’t developed either.

So you say no exit strategy…

… and no follow-up strategy.

But I think that when the sanctions were put in place, the philosophy was that they could be scaled down or even removed if the situation on the ground improves. In situations such as the recent order by President Putin for Russian troops to withdraw from the Ukraine border to their permanent bases, do you sometimes discuss that sanctions should be scaled down with your EU counterparts?

We are not discussing sanctions with our European counterparts. It was their decision, a flawed decision, and it’s up to them to resolve the issue. What Russia has been doing is contributing to de-escalation of the situation in Ukraine, regardless of sanctions. Because we are interested in seeing peace restored in Ukraine. We are interested in putting an end to the fighting and to the killing of civilians and destruction of infrastructure. That’s why Russia has been actively participating in the Contact Group that met several times in Minsk. Russia was a witness to efforts by the parties to the conflict and we will continue that. That’s the reason why Russia has been providing humanitarian to the population of Eastern Ukraine.

I can challenge you on that. You say Russia wants peace in Eastern Ukraine, but we hear many voices saying that Russia has been instigating the conflicts in that part of the country. Also, many say that the humanitarian convoys are a way to supply the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

People may say what they like, but this doesn’t mean such allegations are based on any piece of evidence or any semblance of the truth. The first humanitarian convoy which produced so much speculation went there following an official verbal note of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, confirming its acceptance. It proceeded through border checks, a number of trucks was inspected by Ukrainian officials. But the next morning the same officials failed to appear at their workplace and never returned, which could not be seen differently than a deliberate effort to procrastinate the whole process.

This was done quite transparently, so I wouldn’t accept any hints of those humanitarian convoys being anything else that they were. Regarding “Russia instigating the separatists” as you say, we are not instigating anybody. Actually long before the armed clashes in the Eastern part of Ukraine started, we had been warning both the Kiev authorities, who failed to listen, and the West, who chose to ignore our warning, that this crisis would unfold because what had taken place in Kiev last winter was a coup d’état. A democratically elected president was ousted in an illegal manner and those people who came to power, having signed a document with three EU foreign ministers that they would create a government of national unity, never did. They declared themselves a “government of winners”.

And of course the reaction in Eastern Ukraine to that had to be expected. They believed that those guys in Kyiv didn’t represent their interest, and that they were not their government. This is how it all started. And Russia was not behind this. Russia didn’t start this conflict.

There will be a new European Commission and outgoing President Barroso already indicated he will write his memoirs. And he will probably write about his meetings with Mr. Putin.

That will be interesting to read. I participated in most of them.

That’s precisely why I’m asking you. Do you think that we will learn major secrets from such a book?

I wouldn’t want to speculate what President Barroso chooses to write and what he may choose to omit. But I don’t think you should expect any revelations in the manner of Wikileaks (laughs).

And Russia should have expectations from the new Commission…

Doesn’t everybody?

Exactly. So in what way would you like to see the Commission having a different approach vis-à-vis your country?

The position of the EU is certainly not defined by the Commission alone. It’s also the combined position of member states. With the new Commission we are fully prepared to reinvigorate our cooperation. I would suggest that we should not concentrate on slogans, or debate whether our relationship is strategic or not, but rather look into the substance.

The new Commission will have a number of familiar faces, including its President [Jean-Claude Juncker], who is a well-known experienced politician, who has served as Prime Minister of Luxembourg including during periods of the Luxembourg presidency in the Council. Also bilaterally Russia and Luxembourg had a number of contacts, including at the highest level.

With other members of the Commission, including the High Representative/Vice President, we hope to establish good working contacts, in order to jointly find a way out of this rather negative period in our relations.

How about the new Spanish Commissioner on energy [Miguel Arias Cañete]? Spain doesn’t have much at stake with Russia…

Well, that should increase his credibility. Nobody will blame him for being under the influence of Spain’s national interests.

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