Russia has had good bilateral contacts in recent months with a number of EU member states, the interruption in relations is taking place only at the level of the EU itself, the Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov told EurActiv.com in an exclusive interview.
Chizhov spoke to EurActiv’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.
US-Russia relations are at a very low point over the Syria conflict, the US has suspended the ceasefire talks. Is it because the US and Russia cannot agree on what is Al-Nusra?
I wouldn’t put it that way. Al-Nusra (or whatever it may call itself now) is a terrorist organisation recognised as such by the UN Security Council (UNSC). Russia and the United States, for all the difficulties and complications over the multi-sided conflict in Syria, have been able to agree on a lot of things. And they came up with a number of joint documents which they signed.
For some reason the US was quite hesitant, to put it mildly, to make them public, and to seek the endorsement, as we proposed, of the UNSC. But they were leaked anyway by the Americans and are now in the public domain. The problem is not that we have been unable to agree.
The problem is that unfortunately, the US has been unable or unwilling to deliver on those commitments that State Secretary John Kerry had actually signed up to. Among those the primary issue is separation between the so-called moderate opposition and Al-Nusra.
A lot of attention is now focused on Aleppo, where the eastern part of the city is under control of Al-Nusra and a number of organisations effectively affiliated to Al-Nusra. The Americans have been indicating that some of those maybe linked to the moderate opposition, rather than Al-Nusra.
But Russia sees them as Al-Nusra, which means Al Qaeda.
We say: OK, if the Americans believe some of those do not belong to Al-Nusra and don’t have any such links, please tell them to leave the area. Or let them dissociate themselves from Al-Nusra. This is something that was agreed not at the last meeting between [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and Kerry, this was agreed back in February.
The Americans undertook a commitment to effectively separate the bad guys from the not-so-bad guys, the terrorists from the moderates. But they have been unable to do that since February. The commitments came not only from the State Department, but also from the head of the CIA. That is public knowledge.
The latest that we heard from the State Department is that those groups will define who they are themselves, through self- identification. Well, that doesn’t sound serious in the situation we all see in Syria and particularly in Aleppo.
That’s why the fragile ceasefire that held for a week collapsed. There is the famous Castello Road, which is practically the only supply route to eastern Aleppo. The latest agreement was that the government forces and the opposition would withdraw heavy weapons 3.5 kilometres from that road, on either side. That was a very equitable understanding and the government forces started withdrawing, whereas the opposition didn’t move a finger. On the contrary, they started moving forward. So in this situation, of course, the ceasefire was doomed to collapse.
In a previous interview, with some irony, you said the Americans didn’t have enough opposition figures to put at the negotiating table. Is this part of the picture?
Well, if you view this comment as irony, I am a bit surprised because I’m not sure I was trying to sound ironic.
Because that’s a real problem. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy who has been tasked to launch intra-Syrian dialogue, has not been able to do that so far. The Syrian government has always been in favour and ready to participate, but opposition figures, each having an agenda of his own, mostly concentrated on achieving a change of government and President Assad leaving office. But the situation on the ground doesn’t indicate this is a feasible objective.
What we agreed with the Americans is that we should have a political solution, provided there is a ceasefire, but unilateral ceasefires don’t work.
That’s where we stand today and I was very disappointed with recent statements by State Department spokespersons and also by the US ambassador in New York that are not compatible with norms of diplomatic behaviour. [NB: Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, used the word “barbarism”].
But it is a major political player, isn’t it? [smiles]
I think so.
And it is, of course, a potentially important player in terms of post-conflict rehabilitation, a major donor, to put it squarely. This was an issue discussed yesterday between Foreign Minister Lavrov and High Representative Mogherini. They spoke on the phone, she called him.
The statement was very short.
There are actually two statements, the Russian one is longer. Mogherini presented the new humanitarian initiative she had launched last Sunday.
I believe that international humanitarian assistance will be vital for the overall reconstruction of the country, provided there is a proper ceasefire and the launch of a proper Syrian political dialogue.
Let’s talk about the next EU summit on 20-21 October where EU-Russia relations will be discussed…
Russia is not invited [laughs].
Well, Russia is not an EU member, but the UK is still invited. It looks like at 27 it will be easier to discuss big issues such as European defence…
The UK has stated publicly that as long as they are part of the EU, they are going to oppose any moves towards European defence.
Russia is probably in favour of a European army, because this would weaken NATO?
You know, it’s not Russia’s policy to weaken anybody, except the terrorists. I believe that this is an issue not of a European army, because it’s not on the cards, but of a European military potential. I think that’s an element of forging a more focused and hopefully more independent role for the EU on the global arena.
We want the EU to be strong, united, positively oriented towards our country, naturally, seeing where its real friends are, which is Moscow. We don’t even chlorinate our chickens, as I usually say [laughs]. And being more independent, without the need to look back over their shoulder, towards somebody who twists the arms of Europeans and uses obscene terms vis-à-vis the EU itself.
I hope that the “strategic review” as it is called turns out to be substantial and leads to certain positive decisions on the part of the EU in its relations with Russia. Certainly, the current state of play in our relations is unnatural. This is an issue that needs to be addressed by the EU. Because this situation has been created by the EU, perhaps with the assistance or advice of somebody else. But this problem should be resolved by the EU. And when the EU gathers enough political will to do so, they know where to find us.
There have been a number of visits, of leaders of European countries, with Mr Putin. Slovak PM Robert Fico visited Russia, Mr Putin was invited to Slovenia, and recently the Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov spoke on the phone with him…
There was also a meeting with Commission President Juncker in St Petersburg in June.
…What is common between the three leaders of EU countries is that the three are lobbying for their candidates for UN Secretary General…
You are making that link, not me [laughs]. By the way, I don’t remember any recent visit to Portugal, or from Portugal.
Does the Portuguese candidate have any chance?
I don’t know. He came first in the straw polls.
But maybe Russia expects a good discussion at the summit, because a number of leaders are going to deliver on promises they made.
We actually had good bilateral contacts in recent months with a number of EU member states. Not only those you mentioned. I remember when President Juncker was in St Petersburg, the Italian Prime Minister was also there. And the President of Cyprus recently met in New York with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
There has been no interruption of high-level contacts across the EU. The interruption has been at the level of the EU itself. Unfortunately. And that has produced a negative impact on the interests of both sides, and on the interests of Europe as a whole.
I’m not linking the calendar of visits to the election of a new UN Secretary General, that’s a long shot. There are many other issues to be discussed with each country, including with your home country Bulgaria. Like energy issues.
Speaking about energy, will there be a new winter gas package this year?
A package by definition is something consisting of several issues packed together. A year ago, and two years ago, the issues were three. One was the outstanding debt of the Ukrainian side – the unchallenged part of the debt, because the challenged part is dealt with by the arbitration court in Stockholm. The second was to define the volumes and procedures for gas supply from Russia to Ukraine. And the third element was the price.
Today, I don’t see any of the three elements being on the table. That part of the debt issue has been settled, Ukraine has stopped buying Russian gas last November, almost a year ago, which in turn makes the issue of price irrelevant.
Of course, I understand the concerns of the EU and of the Commission, they calculate that should there be harsh winter, or even a mild winter, Ukraine will not be able to live without Russian gas, and only of gas brought by reverse procedures, which basically is also Russian gas. But at a higher price.
Are you sure? I have heard Vice President Šefčovič saying that Ukraine has saved a lot of money thanks to reverse flows.
No, they saved money because they consumed less. The prices for households increased more than three-fold.
So you confirm that gas from reverse flows is more expensive? Because I asked the Commission, and they say they cannot comment, because this is a commercial secret.
Yes, that may be so. But looking logically, if you send x cubic metres of gas by a direct pipeline, or if you send it via a much longer route, through additional transit countries, which would be cheaper?
Everything is possible.
That is indeed so, but within the framework of laws of nature…