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As part of our Vocal Cast series supported by Science 14, we have talked to Henri Malosse, former President of European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and Honorary Chairman of Vocal Europe. Among many relevant issues, we have talked about the Past, Present and the Future of EU-Russia Relations.

Antoine Decq: For more than 20 years there has been the Russian narrative of the so-called “broken promise” not to expand NATO eastward, a discourse that has been an integral part of post-Soviet identity on the idea of this so-called promise born out of the confusion of the post-Cold War era. However, the absence of such a promise not to enlarge NATO seems to be the first major post-Cold War mistake that negatively crystallised EU-Russia relations. Firstly, in your opinion, by touching on Russia’s beloved “near abroad”, was NATO’s enlargement to Eastern Europe the first mistake that damaged EU-Russia relations? And secondly, what would have been the mistakes of the European Union or of other actors that would have deteriorated this relationship?

Henri Malosse: So, you know, if you come back 30 years ago, in the 90s, when the Iron Curtain falls down and all the system collapsed in the East. The European Union had no clear vision what to do with these Eastern countries including the former soviet union. And, at that time, there were a lot of hopes in of course east countries but also in Russia – former soviet union – that we will come to a new, I would say, system of cooperation inside of Europe… where there will be a kind of reunification between East and West. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

I think that one of the main mistake was to – from the beginning, and I think it didn’t come from Europeans, it comes from Americans – underestimate the wish of the Russian nation – not just the leaders, but the Russian nation – to keep a kind of sovereignty and a kind of own vision for their identity. In fact, they all expected all the countries in the East just to follow the American model, just to – I would say –  don’t have their own proposals, their own vision of the future. This has, of course, succeed with many countries of the East that more or less accept it because it was the American « way of life, values » and so on, but this didn’t work with Russia and it was appart from a question of leaders – Eltsin, Putin, etc. The Russian nation, for a lot of reasons, because of its history – like France, UK, countries with long histories, European countries with long histories – wants to preserve its own identity, its own vision. And the mistake was done I think by Westerns not to think about that.

And I will just give you an anecdote. Maybe you know but I am quite close to the Dalaï-lama. I remember I met him once, it was at the beginning of crisis in Ukraine. With very simple words, it sounds strange for you, but he said « I don’t understand why when the Iron Curtain collapsed, the EU didn’t make two decisions. The one was to move the sit from Brussels to Warsaw, to put it more in the center of Europe – and secondly to move NATO from Brussels to Moscow.

That means – this is very clever in my view – to change the nature of NATO. As long as we keep NATO as an instrument against Russia of course Russia couldn’t have option not to force Europeans and Americans to stop NATO not more far from its borders because if NATO keeps its nature as anti-Russian coalition, of course they didn’t want to see the close neighbourhood as Ukraine, Belarus, belonging to NATO and I think there was a big misunderstand. It does not excuse what Mr. Putin did and the occupation of Crimea, the Donbass, etc – it is not an excuse, just an explanation of a mistake which had been done. I personally think that in the 80s with the fall of the Iron Curtain the real question was : What is the future of NATO ?

I think some people had this idea – not just in France but in Germany, in Italy, I remain Prime Ministers and I remember Mr. Berlusconi, they all put in question the existence of NATO and the fact to change it fundamentally. I think the Americans, for probably ideological reasons, keep in mind Russia for them was the Soviet union, which is a mistake – this has reinforce the feeling in Russia as well as the power of Mr. Putin. If you remember, the power of Mr. Putin at the beginning of its mandate was not very strong. I will just remind you another anecdote which is also true, during his first mandate Mr. Putin went to Brussels and met Mr. Prodi. Mr Putin said : « What would be your reaction Mr. Prudi if I bring you an application for Russia to join the European Union », and the answer of Mr. Prudi was : « Strange, you know, Russia is too big ».

The reality is that we didn’t made any efforts to attract Russia to join our vision of the future of Europe. They felt excluded and this has, of course, strengthened all the conservative parties. People in Russia they are feeling that, whatever change, the West reject the collapse of their countries so the reactions was more authoritarianism, more agressive policies. So, of course, it’s a giant responsibility, not just from the West but I think the West has a big responsibility.

Antoine Decq: Russian foreign policy has not changed strategically since 1991. For more than a decade Russian foreign policy has been fuelled by direct military action to reaffirm its power and also fuelled by post-Cold War resentment… all of this around a triptych of interventions responding to: the attack on vital interests, the perception of a geopolitical defeat in its periphery and the seizing of opportunities. In your opinion, are the current difficulties encountered in the EU-Russia relationship for the most part endemic to the nature of Russian foreign policy?

Henri Malosse: No I don’t think so and I don’t agree so much on the concept that Russian foreign policy has not changed. My opinion is that there is no vision for Russia foreign policy. I think it is just an opportunism, an opportunity and a reaction to the American foreign policy and the Chinese one maybe. There was an opportunity for Russians to join a kind of European vision, not European Union, but European vision, a kind of strong link with the European Union, or to have their own strategy.

It’s probably the fear that they had after some events as the Orange revolution in Kiev, or Georgia. It makes them thinking the West was still agressive and was still willing to change the regime in Moscow. This has conduct them to have a more – I would say – conservative, protective interest policy which has result in the occupation of Crimea because they fear the capacity of NATO to extent to Ukraine and the fact that maybe bases such as Sebastopol could be closed, etc. So they are still in my view in a reactive position, facing what they feel as an agression. So as long as these factors will remain…

Of course we cannot expect any change, I don’t think for example that Russia wants to commit agression in the Baltic countries, or Poland, etc. This is a dream, this is a fiction, this is not the reality. The reality is that – and the example of Ukraine is very clear – the main goal the Russian strategy in Ukraine was – and it is still – to destabilize the country and the priority was Crimea. Why ? Because in Crimea there are their navy base, there are their navy force, and this is « impossible » to loose so it is a reaction, it is not – I would say – an imperialist approach to gain more regions, more power. It is to keep their power, keep the regime, they want to keep their positions in the country of course, their autocrats, oligarchs, they want to keep their rulers. That is understandable. But it is not the assumption.

The assumption is that – as you know there is a majority of Russians who, I think, agree with that vision – they want to keep the nature of the country as a power, as a country which is important in the world and they did not want to become a secondary-class country in front of the Americans. That is the main issue and as long as we do not propose to them, to Mr. Putin or to others, a kind of deal where Russia could be considered as an equal partner, we will not achieve anything.

Antoine Decq: Russia assumes that it is in a constant state of military inferiority and that it must therefore use asymmetrical means to overcome this inferiority. This does not only involve military force but also Russian soft power. Cyberspace has in recent years become the privileged place for the projection of Russian power (social networks and Russia’s interference in US elections, even the cyber attack of 2017 against an EU member state, Estonia (- even if there is no formal proof that it is Russia, and so on and so forth). How the European Union can protect itself facing this Russian information manipulation?

Henri Malosse: So, I will be frank with you, I think this question of cyberattacks are largely overestimated from the European Union side and from the European public opinion and some media. I am sure that the Russian secret service uses all weapons that they have and they probably tested it against Estonia which is probably the smallest and weakest country in Europe, just to see the reaction. I am sure that some people in Russian secret service can make some manipulations. I am sorry but do you think that the Americans don’t do the same ?

Do you know the story of Edward Snowden and the NSA, the Americans spying Ms. Merkel, Mr. Hollande, Mr. Sarkozy, etc. I don’t know why we all focus on that. I think the Russian secret service uses social media to promote their ideas, their opinions. Ok, they do what Americans do, probably with less ressources than Americans. I think this focus on what the Russians are doing is of course exaggerated. It is obvious that Mr. Trump was elected with the support of Russian media or not. Did they do it ? I don’t know, I am not an expert, I don’t know secrets, but this aspect is overestimated.

Antoine Decq: Today the levels of communication have fallen to a level lower than during the Cold War between Americans and Russians. So the European Union can’t afford to stop talking. However, dialogue has a price, it is a means, it requires clear objectives and inflexible positions, it will be, it has to be, a strong Europe, as Joseph Borell said, in front of the Russian power. To this end, before entering into a dialogue, what would be the differences that the European Union should resolve with Russia? What is the condition for this dialogue today?

Henri Malosse: I think we should come back to the crisis in Ukraine, if you know I was quite familiar with that, I have been banned by Mr. Putin among the 89 European personalities (2005). I have been banned because of my statement supporting civic movements in Ukraine, not against Russia but civic movements against corruption. I remember exactly the start of the crisis. Start of the crisis was that the European Union, and DG Trade mainly, wanted absolutely to have a deal with Ukraine, a partnership deal. We thought associate Russia to this deal which was a big mistake because economic relations of Ukraine were at that time, still now, 75% with Russia on both sides. So, this lack of sensibility of Brussels had conduct to this awful Ukrainian situation- I just repeat it is not an excuse for what Russia did, but it is an explanation.

I think that we have to have a frank and opened discussion with Russia concerning all relations that we have with Russia concerning trade, concerning cooperation, and in a certain way to find a way to include them in a European global structure. I will just remember, when the European Commission proposed its neighbourhood policy, EC proposed its neighbourhood policy, including trade partnerships, to all countries including Russia and Russia at that time didn’t accept. It is not that they did not want any partnerships with EU but they said – and this is also strange to this historical identity question – « You cannot treat us like Kazakstan or Armenia.

We are a big country, you have to have special conditions for us ». The European Union did not understand that and did not propose anything. So we have to come back to this, whatever is the ruler of Russia, we like him or we don’t like him but we have to have direct talks with them. To be honest I don’t understand this double language of the European Union towards Russia, for example compared with China. Russia is a democratic paradise compared to China. It is our neighbour, it is in Europe but we have the best possible relations with China although we know it is a dictatorship, millions of people are in concentration camps but we don’t care we have good deals, we discuss on all topics… and with Russia there is absolutely nothing. I think that the Iron Curtain is still in the heads of lot of European and American leaders and that’s the problem.

Antoine Decq: Russia seems to have no interest in cooperating with us, nor does it seem to have any desire to implement confidence-building measures or to engage in possible dialogue. Do you think that the European Union is willing to endure the consequences of Russian power and should we expect more destabilising attempts from Russia?

Henri Malosse: No I don’t agree with that assertion, I think that even Russia or Mr. Putin have interest to strengthen relations with the European Union. Their main problem is that they are feeling that the Europeans don’t have interests, so it is the opposite, and that the goal of Europeans is just to destabilize Russia, just to destabilize the Russian power and the Russian state and sovereignty. So, as long as we have this misunderstand, for both sides, we won’t achieve anything. I really think that even if the EU has the intention, the idea, to strengthen opposition in Russia, because there is one… It is not in China where you have free written prices, free radios, etc. Go to Beijing and try to find some oppositions media you won’t find. Of course it is a growing pressure, it is more and more difficult for these people but it still exist. You have seen, even in elections you have some people from opposition parties who have been elected, local elections. So, you want to strength this democratic movement, even if Mr. Putin has not the eternity for him, so, there will be one end one day.

We have to develop a new way of relationship with Russia to include trade issues, military issues, to include cooperation in a lot of matters. I really think that the Russians have a clear vision of what to do with the EU. They still don’t know in fact if the European Union is a tool against them, or if it is something that they can cooperate with. If we convince them that we can cooperate with them.

We thought denying things that happened in Russia it is something different but, if we find a way to have a partnership with them, an open partnership, this will help and this will also help the democratic transition in Russia in the same time. In this matter, as we feel aggressed, all the nation is beyond Mr. Putin. When you feel you are a victim, you unify your country. If they feel that there is a way of cooperation, we should never forget that Mr. Putin in its first mandate have made a lot of quite positive signs towards Europeans. Maybe I forgot but Mr. Putin and Mr. Tusk made a joint declaration in Katyń to commemorate the assassination of polish elites by the soviet communists, etc. I think it is not so clear that Russia is our enemy. It is clear for me that Russia belongs to Europe and that we have to find a way to integrate them in our European vision.

Antoine Decq: Thank you very much for having us Mr. Malosse and for the share of your knowledge and advices on EU-Russia relations.

Henri Malosse: Thank you