RD Interview: Russian diplomat Andrey Kelin, director of the Department of European Cooperation at Russia’s Foreign Ministry, gives his take on why Moscow and Brussels continue to struggle to find common ground on the most pressing questions of European security, including the Ukrainian crisis.

Top diplomats from the West and Russia trying to find an end to the crisis in Ukraine. Photo: AP

Despite tentative signs that Europe is looking for ways to reset its relationship with Russia, concerns still linger over Ukraine, the prolongation of economic sanctions, and signs that NATO could be looking to expand its military presence near Russia’s borders.

Against this backdrop of deteriorating Russia-EU relations, Russia Direct sat down with Andrey Kelin, director of the Department of European Cooperation at Russia’s Foreign Ministry and former Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to discuss the current challenges facing Russia in its relationship with Europe.

Russia Direct: How do you assess the recent attempts by the EU to reset its relations with Russia – in particular, the five principles presented by Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs, in mid-March?

Andrey Kelin: We have been aware that the EU has been looking for a new foundation for Russia-EU relations. They came up with the opinion that it is necessary to reassess their relations with Moscow and find a new framework. All this adds up to a new formula. According to this formula, ‘business as usual’ is impossible.

We agree with such a view, because earlier the ‘business as usual’ approach added up to the fact that we had to accept everything that the EU says as axiomatic. Of course, it is impossible for us now. Joint work is only possible only if mutual interests are taken into account.  So, basically, the EU’s five principles to work with Russia just confirm the status quo. They don’t pledge any breakthrough. At the same time, we clearly understand they outline the very framework, which the EU can use to work with Russia now.

RD: What is this framework? Can you be more specific on the most important principles?

A.K.: The first principle is the necessity to observe the Minsk agreements. Yes, we totally agree with it, but we are not a part of the problem. Resolving the Ukraine crisis is impossible without fulfilling the political commitments by Ukraine, including constitutional reform, amnesty [of the Donbas rebels] as well as parliamentary elections in Ukraine. But this is a set of measures, which Kiev is absolutely not ready to implement. That’s why it is not Russia that should be addressed to fulfill these political principles, but Ukraine. We cannot fulfill their commitment for them. 

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The second principle is the statement of the EU that it will keep working with a focus on countries within the Eastern Partnership project. We understand this. But they also plan to expand this partnership to Central Asia. This is what we cannot understand, because we see the Eastern Partnership policy as a failure. In fact, it led to the collapse of two major Eastern European states – Ukraine and Moldova. They were on the verge of the civil war. If the EU wants to apply this experience in Central Asia, it means another crisis is looming. And this is the problem. 

The third principle is the energy security of the EU. Well, it adds up to an easier formula, which means that the EU needs to be more independent of gas and energy supplies from Russia. Two factors play a role here. First, the pressure from across the Atlantic in favor of the supplies of American liquefied natural gas (LNG) and shale gas.  Second, the European Union will have to sacrifice its long-established energy collaboration with Russia, which dates back to the 1960s. For us, it is obvious that the EU chose such a policy due to Euro-Atlantic solidarity and pragmatism.

Andrey Kelin, director of the Department of European Cooperation at Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Photo: RD

RD: You mentioned Europe’s energy security. Recently, the U.S. lifted its oil and gas export embargo and, moreover, has already exported oil and gas to Europe. So, will the EU be able to replace Russian gas with American gas?

A.K.: Basic economics indicates that, from the point of view of extraction and transportation, LNG and shale gas from the U.S. will be much more expensive than gas and oil that Europe has been getting from Russian fields.

Energy collaboration between the EU and Russia has a very rich and long history: The reliability of Russian routes and transportation has almost never been called into question, except during the so-called Russian-Ukraine gas war [A series of disputes between Russian gas giant Gazprom and Ukraine’s oil and gas company Naftogaz that threatened natural gas supplies in some European countries dependent on Russian gas that was transported through Ukraine – Editor’s note].

RD: You said that business as usual is impossible between Russia and the EU now. Don’t you think that any attempts to reinvigorate dialogue are doomed to failure, as long as Moscow and Brussels are inherently reluctant to come up with a compromise? 

A.K.: It is necessary to change their approaches drastically. Today, the security of small European countries comes from their participation in NATO and the EU. The entire philosophy of establishing a partnership [with the EU and NATO] has been based on the presumption of their leadership over other partner countries.

I do understand that the countries are different. There are small countries, which accepted the positions of NATO and the EU and blindly followed them. But for a country like Russia, such kind of partnership is just impossible. The very essence of the Ukrainian conflict comes from just such a policy – of NATO and the EU imposing their approaches that are incompatible with Russia’s position.

RD: So, how does Russia view the state of Russia-EU relations and what approaches of dealing with Europe can it offer?

A.K.: Our relations with the EU are currently in a condition that is close to zero. This is the status quo. This is the result of the EU’s decisions, taken in the context of Crimea and the Ukraine crisis. We haven’t conducted bilateral summits for a long period of time.  In fact, we have frozen all 18 sectoral platforms for dialogue.

There is nothing left from previous Russia-EU meetings, except sporadic ministerial talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Federica Mogherini, and some ministers. There are occasional meetings on trade and political issues. But, systematically, it doesn’t work. The result is absolutely obvious: Trade has plummeted by 40 percent over the last year.

RD: EU-Russia relations seem to have a new framework: hostility as usual.

A.K.: No, there is no hostility. I would rather call it a freezing [of the relationship]. It results from sanctions, which introduce an element of frustration into Russia-EU relations. I know that not all countries are satisfied with such a status quo and they are making some attempts to change the situation. After all, working out Mogherini’s five principles indicates that Russia-EU relations should head in the direction of gradual normalization. It remains to be seen what will happen in the near future.

RD: To what extent do Russia and Europe make enough effort to come up with a compromise solution and alleviate the decline in relations?

A.K.: Currently, there is no effective work [in improving relations].  We don’t conduct full-fledged negotiations to figure out our next steps of what is to be done. Both Russia and the EU are in the state of assessing the current situation and coming up with mid-term and long-term policies. But there is preparation for serious negotiations.

RD: In what field should the EU and Russia collaborate primarily?

A.K.: We need more robust political cooperation, though we are working in this field now. We collaborated on the Iranian nuclear deal and achieved some results. Although the EU is not actively involved in the Syrian conflict, we have a dialogue on Syria. We urgently need more cooperation to protect ourselves from the terror threat. We have to shift from [occasional] dialogue to more frequent systematic talks. Among other challenges are the dialogue on Ukraine, the Balkans, and the Middle East.

RD: Given Russia’s indirect and direct participation in the Syrian conflict, there are talks about the possibility of Moscow-Brussels cooperation in dealing with Europe’s migration crisis. What can Russia offer to contribute to alleviate the challenge?

A.K.: Migration is an urgent problem for the European Union. Russia has its own problems. Currently, the EU is dealing with many migrants from the Middle East, but, with the conflict [in Donbas], we have up to a million refugees from Eastern Ukraine moving to Russia and we are somehow succeeding in resolving the problem. Frequently, ambassadors from the EU complain about their migration problems and difficulties. The only thing that we can do here is to just express our regrets. Specifically, we cannot help.

And, of course, we are [focused on] fighting the roots of the problem, not its consequences. The roots of the crisis come from instability in the Middle East and the civil war in Syria, which has lasted more than five years. Through our military forces, we aim at alleviating the situation and contributing to a political settlement of the conflict. This, in turn, should mitigate the reasons for the migration crisis.

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RD: Some economists warn about the grave implications of the Ukrainian economic crisis on Russia and the EU. Amidst the risk of economic default in Ukraine, what are the odds of the EU and Russia teaming up to help Ukraine financially keep its economy afloat?

A.K.: I would respond in this way: You don’t choose neighbors and it is impossible to change them geographically. Ukraine has been and remains our closest neighbor and brother country. The fact that it is located between Russia and Europe indicates that the resumption of relations is inevitable, be it in the mid-term or in the long-term. Sooner or later, we‘ll find common ground.

RD: Do you mean that Russia and Europe will be able to see eye-to-eye and agree on joint financial aid to Ukraine?

A.K.: Of course, but in order to achieve it, we need a reliable and trustworthy government in Ukraine that is capable of coming up with a compromise. However, recent experience has shown that the current Ukrainian leadership is not easy to get along with. It signed the Minsk agreements and then refused to fulfill their key points, for example, political settlement of the conflict and establishment of dialogue with Donbas. But without such dialogue, it is impossible to resolve the problem.

RD: Well, Russia is also intransigent and not ready for any dialogue. Could joint financial donor aid to Ukraine be a potential trade-off for the Kremlin to persuade Europe to lift economic sanctions?

A.K.: We are not participating in and we won’t take part in any trade-offs related to sanctions. It is absolutely obvious. It is the EU that imposed sanctions under a dubious pretext. A series of countries joined these sanctions. It is their problem of how they are going to lift sanctions. Of course, we like neither sectoral sanctions nor the sanctions against Crimea.

But now the EU has driven itself into a corner: the reluctance of Kiev to come up with compromise and the refusal to foster political settlement. The EU is supposed to resolve the problem in late June by delinking the sanctions from political settlement in Ukraine. European leaders should look at the problem in a broader perspective and base their decisions on the interests of their own countries, not those interests imposed from the other side of the Atlantic.

RD: March 2015 saw the second anniversary of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia. In your view, to what extent have Russia and Europe changed their approach to the problem?

A.K.: The situation is hardly likely to have changed in just two years.

RD: Well, if we talk about the resumption of effective collaboration between Russia and the EU, it does matter. But the U.S. and Europe are not ready to recognize the accession of Crimea to Russia.

A.K.: The U.S. did not recognize the incorporation of the Baltic States to the Soviet Union during the period of time when those countries were part of the Soviet Union. And nobody took into account that they were part of the Russian Empire historically. 

The fact that Russia incorporated Crimea doesn’t mean that life is over. It will continue at any rate. It is a matter of fact. It remains to be seen how people will look at it in a decade. It happened. It is irreversible. Calls for changing it lead nowhere.

RD: Some argue that the situation in Crimea is far from ideal, given the energy blockade, blackouts and infrastructure problems that emerged after the incorporation of the peninsula into Russia. There are even opinions that Crimea might return to Ukraine. In your view, to what extent is the situation with Crimea stable today and what are the chances of Crimea coming back to Ukraine?   

A.K.: I find it difficult to imagine such a scenario. We are following the situation with a great deal of attention. Nothing bad happens in Crimea. However, there are a lot of problems there, which is the result of being a part of Ukraine during 23 years. It is bureaucracy, corruption – those people who take bribes have unfortunately kept their positions. And this is the main human resource challenge for Crimea. The Russian legislation, which is very tough in tackling corruption, finds it difficult to adjust to the environment, which evolved there, when Crimea was part of Ukraine.    

RD: What do you think about the idea about a new Crimean referendum with the OSCE oversight?

A.K.: This is a very tricky issue. It is very difficult to answer this question right now.  Personally, I think that the result would be the same, as it was the case two years ago, when we were inviting OSCE observers to attend the first referendum. But they rejected the chance to come; only some members of parliament and politicians from some countries paid a visit to Crimea. Given the current tough position of the U.S. and the Western Europe, they would hardly likely have met the results of such a referendum with favor. It is not ruled out that they would not recognize them.

RD: Russia-NATO relations are not in the best shape right now. What is your take on the prospects of resetting their relationship?

A.K.: Russia and NATO are the largest stakeholders that determine the state of security on the continent. That’s the reason they should maintain [working] relations. Currently, under the pretext of differences over Ukraine, NATO interrupted these relations, with the exception of official political dialogue conducted by Russia’s NATO permanent envoy. But time is passing and more calls for resuming dialogue with Russia are coming from NATO’s members.

RD: So far, NATO seems to be reluctant to restore ties with Russia. What should happen to drive both Russia and NATO to cooperate, instead of being involved in mutual saber rattling?   

A.K.: NATO members should understand that [the restoration of working relations with Russia] is essential. After all, there are few NATO members who resist cooperating with Russia. Probably, those countries from Old Europe should overcome their phobias and stop being afraid of their own shadow. There are also small countries with a sense of inflated self-importance: They try to show that they play a significant role in geopolitics and can easily stop any attempts to open dialogue with Russia.    

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RD: Do you mean the Baltic States? But they are just expressing their fears about Russia’s foreign policy for a reason – they are becoming very concerned with further aggression from Russia. So, what goals is Russia pursuing in the Baltics?

A.K.: You know, I have been working as a diplomat for 37 years and I have never seen Russia being really aggressive. Crimea is a special case. Regarding other republics such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they emerged [as independent states] as a result of the Georgian invasion and aggression. In the case of Crimea, everything was clear: If we hadn’t interfered, Kiev would have started there the same anti-terror operation, which it launched in Donbas later. So, external stakeholders provoked this situation. We just responded to it.    

RD: So, what will be the Kremlin’s policy toward the Baltic States?

A.K.: Russia’s policy toward the Baltic States will reflect their own policy toward Russia. However, people-to-people relations between Russia and the Baltic States are pretty good, but there is a great deal of hostility from Vilnius and Riga on an official level and from its leadership. Unless this hostile, anti-Russian rhetoric stops, it is impossible to talk about any improvement of relations. We have to respond with tough comments. 

RD: Russia seems find it much more difficult to talk with the EU than with separate European countries. Instead of improving relations with the EU in general, could the Kremlin choose to target separate EU countries and establish political and economic ties on a bilateral level?         

A.K.: Indeed, currently we are establishing bilateral contacts. But if we want to have normal bilateral relations with separate EU members, this means that we have normal bilateral relations with their institutions. And it is the institution of the European Union we have to deal with, first and foremost. It is impossible otherwise.

Yet, the problem is in the institution itself. Its foreign policy is based on the principle of the so-called lowest common denominator. It means that positions and approaches of many countries are sacrificed in favor of a common, narrower position [of the whole institution or organization]. Moreover, when a country doesn’t have its own specific position on a certain issue, very frequently it accepts the position proposed by Washington.

RD: There are some views that Russia has been trying to split Europe ever since the Ukraine crisis. How accurate are those views?

A.K.: Such speculation is not new historically. If you look through the history of the Vienna Congress, which recently marked its 200th anniversary, you will find the same opinions - that Russian Emperor Alexander I’s policy aimed at dividing Europe. In reality, such accusations came not by chance. Some European countries tried to prevent Russia from playing a greater role in European politics. Well, history repeats itself.