Vocal Europe: A recent order of Russian President Vladimir Putin recognizes the identification documents issued by the militant authorities in the self- declared “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Though the Russian authorities contended that the order was taken for humanitarian reasons and it complies with international law, Germany and France stated that the action contradicts the Minsk Agreement. How do you see this action: as a step towards de jure recognition of those disputed Ukrainian regions; as a humanitarian measure; as a stark failure of Minsk Agreement?
Saryusz-Wolski: This is a further step in Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and unity. It is a clear violation of the Minsk agreements and was officially recognised as such by all parties of the peace process except Russia. The United States and the European Union have also condemned this move. By officially accepting the documents issued by Russia-controlled authorities in the occupied Eastern Ukraine, Kremlin has once again violated the international law. What we witness is another Anschluss in the making.
VE: At the Munich Security Conference, the EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini, reaffirmed the Union’s commitment to Minsk Agreement. In this regard, what more EU could and should do to enforce the peace agreement? Is there an alternative to the Minsk Agreement?
SW: EU’s and international community’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, including already a yearlong occupation of Ukrainian Crimea, was too weak and too late. Now, the Ukrainians suffer the consequences of this negligence and we SEE our own security endangered.
International community, including the EU and US, should undertake concrete actions in its response to Russian occupation of Crimea and war in East Ukraine; the more we hesitate, the more Russia advances, as proved especially by the latest developments in Eastern Ukraine and city of Avdiivka, where Russian proxies and regular troops advanced in terms of intensifying its military actions and attempting to take over further territories
Minsk Agreements do not deliver any results towards achieving peace. The Normandy Format meeting conducted during the Munich Security Conference did not improve the critical situation in Eastern Ukraine. The reason for this failure if the false perception of Russia as a party to a peace process, while, in reality, it is an aggressor and Ukraine is a victim. Therefore, the Minsk paradigm should be revised: future talks should include international actors like the EU and the US, which means moving from the Normandy to Geneva format.
VE: At the start of 2016, a U.S. State Department official declared that Western sanctions against Moscow are not intended to push Russia “over the economic cliff”, but to exert long-term pressure. More, the study published by the Office of the Chief Economist at the U.S. State Department in December 2016 suggests that the sanctions have had a relatively smaller impact on Russian economic output and import demand compared with oil prices. In your opinion, can the sanctions be a more efficient tool in triggering a change in the behaviour of Russia or are they bounded to limited effectiveness?
SW: EU sanctions towards Russia should continue and be further increased, in response to increased Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine, according to the EU proportionality principle ‘more for more’. These sanctions are also an instrument of political pressure and a form of deterrence: nobody likes be on the sanction lists imposed by the EU and the USA. This policy has already exacerbated some macroeconomic challenges, inherent to weak Russian economy due to its systemic mismanagement.
Thus, the sanctions, although limited in scale, proven to be effective and are perceived as an aggravating factor by the Russian leadership. The key of the effectiveness of the sanctions is their firmness and a perspective of an eventual proportional increase. Political consensus on the sanctions necessitates that there is a political clarity Russia being the aggressor and Ukraine the victim.
That starts with the language we use: there should be not talk of ‘separatists and civil war in Eastern Ukraine’. Instead, we should denounce war by Russian proxy and regular troops, invading Ukrainian territory.
VE: The Ukrainian crisis changed in a fundamental way the post-Cold War political and strategic relationships between the European Union and Russia. In spite of the solidarity manifested by the Union’s members on the issue of sanctions, the member states have manifested diverging approaches towards Russia and even preference to deal on bilateral terms with Moscow. In this context, which approach has the best chances to prevail on EU-Russia relations, in the near future: appeasement, assertiveness, transformation?
SW: In the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine and establishment of the EU policy of sanctions, the unanimity in the Council was difficult to obtain, as not all Member States were willing to recognise this aggression. It took a lot of effort to reach the relative unity we enjoy now.
EU must stay united and firm in our policy towards Russia, there is no room for appeasement or transformation; sanctions should be continued and eventually increased. What we need is to contain Russia and deter its aggression. Member States should respect the established line of the common foreign policy in their bilateral relations with Russia.
They should avoid prioritizing their own individual economic and political interests over the security and stability of the EU as a whole and over the basis of a rule-based international order – the inviolability of the borders.
The future of sanctions depends also on the outcomes of oncoming important elections in Europe. It is no coincidence that Russians have undertook a massive effort to influence the democratic process in some Member States.
VE: In the light of the recent declarations made by the U.S. officials- Vice-President Mike Pence and the Ambassador to UN Nikki Haley- , do you think that the United States and the EU would continue to stay united and share a common stance towards Russia or their policies are likely to differ?
SW: Russia is testing the response of the US under current administration – as shown by an increase in military aggression in Eastern Ukraine following the conversation between presidents Trump and Putin earlier this year. Russia mercilessly pushes on any weakness it perceives of the other side.
If the aggression is not stopped in Ukraine, then the European and American security is at stake. It is in the fundamental security interest of both the United States and EU to stay united on Russia policy. It is also in the American interest to support Europe whole and free, united and safe.
Both the EU and US should be involved in peace process within the Geneva format. We should revive the spirit of the Budapest Memorandum on security guarantees to Ukraine. Russia should abstain from voting in UN Security Council on issues where it is party to a dispute (as stipulated in article 27 of the UN Charter).
In this context, I welcome statements by Vice-President Pence and Ambassador Haley on holding Russia accountable for its aggression in Ukraine and maintaining American sanctions, and hope this will remain the cornerstone of the EU – US common policy. As the US and the EU are unable to protect Ukraine from Russian aggression, we should be able at least to provide arms, tools and weapons for Ukraine’s self-defence, accompanied by a stronger joint political and economic support.