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Chair of the EU-Ukraine delegation in the EP Witold Waszczykowski: “There are myths and naiveté in the West towards Russia”

Vitold Vashikovskiy expert

Ukraine can still count on the US Congress to be against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but it looks like there will be no leverage to stop the project in Germany. This is an opinion of the Polish MEP Witold Waszczykowski (European Conservatives and Reformists Group), chair of the Delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee, former minister of foreign affairs of Poland. In an exclusive interview to Brussels Ukraїna Review, Mr. Waszczykowski spoke about conflicts in Donbas and Crimea, suggested introducing sanctions against the larger Russian population and regretted that Ukraine made a mistake when, according to him, it neglected Poland. 

Аcourt in Dusseldorf ruled recently that Nord Stream 2 must comply with the European Union’s gas directive, and 50% of this pipeline’s capacity should be available to other suppliers, not just to Gazprom. But is it still possible to stop this project? Many people think that it’s just a political weapon of the Kremlin.

The only way to stop the project completely is to press Germany because this is the most important country involved in this project. Of course, we have no instruments to press Russia. We tried to use the United States, so to speak, as a country that can put pressure on Germany. During the Trump era, we were quite successful because his administration and the Congress were on our side, and the Congress tried to impose sanctions on this project. But Biden needs Germany for other political challenges, like China and he thinks that by making concessions to Russia and Germany on Nord Stream 2 he will gain support of both Russia and Germany to compete with China. So, we cannot count on the Biden administration anymore. Maybe we can still count on the Congress because it shows bipartisan support against this project.

In Germany, the only political force we can count on is the Greens. This is a party that is against this project, and this is the party that objects to the growing influence of Russia in Europe. But the power of the Greens and their influence is getting weaker. The election was won again by the coalition of CDU and SPD. And Greens are not going to be a part of the government. So, we will not gain an instrument, and we will not have leverage in Germany to stop the project. The last option, of course, is the European Commission. But again, the Commission is under the great influence of Berlin. The President of the Commission is the former German minister of defense Ursula von der Leyen. So, even if we have a wide European decision, I think that German politicians inside the European institutions will try to sabotage this verdict, in order to promote the German national interest. So, in the near future, I don’t see the possibility of stopping the project.

Do you see that the West lacks determination in this regard? They are not so active.

I think that there are myths and there’s naiveté. Some people believe that Russia is important because it is a big economy. And, in the near future, they can make a lucrative deal with the Russian economy. This is a myth because the Russian economy is getting weaker and weaker. Not so many people know that economic cooperation between Germany and Poland is far greater than between Germany and Russia, that economic cooperation between Germany and the Visegrad countries is bigger than between Germany and France. But they still think that maybe in the future, Russia will be better off, and it is good to maintain contacts with them for future economic deals. So, this is a myth. Also, there is an illusion and naive posture that cooperating with Russia will impose some rules and standards, especially democratic standards, on Russia. That’s naive because Russia is doing the opposite; it is corrupting Western politicians. Take Gerhard Schröder, take the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria, the former Prime Minister of France Mr. Fillon and others. The western part of Europe does not have enough power to impose rules and standards on Russia. It is the opposite way: it is Moscow that is able to corrupt and weaken the standards and norms of Western Europe.

There is another important issue where we can see that the West is not active enough. It’s Donbas. And recently, Ukraine announced that the United States would take part in talks on resolving the war in Donbas and the de-occupation of Crimea. So far, we do not know the details. But do you think that this new format with American participation is exactly what we need now, that the current Normandy format is non-effective?

Yes, in my opinion, both formats – the Normandy formula and Minsk peace process  – are not effective, mildly speaking. So, I think we are supposed to think about what is sometimes called the Geneva format, which includes the Americans. When we look at the history of the 20th century in Europe, we couldn’t solve any conflict without the Americans: World War I, World War II, the Balkan crisis, the Balkan wars. We managed to solve these conflicts only with the help and assistance of the United States. We can see how cases without them go: for instance, Moldova, Transnistria, Crimea and Donbas. But I don’t see right now the willingness and eagerness in Washington to join negotiations on Donbas. Mr. Zelensky visited Washington recently. Yes, he was invited. He was hosted by Biden but, as I understand, Zelensky got some promises of financial support, but not too many promises to help to solve the problem politically.

Thus, once again, I’m not very optimistic about this because it is also the Western Europe, especially Germany and France, who is blocking access of the United States to a new formula, to a new format. Both of these countries are convinced that they’re supposed to emancipate themselves from the grip of Washington. They are still thinking that this is a debate we have had for years in the European Parliament about something that is called “European strategic autonomy”. They prefer that Europe goes along without the Americans and does not include the US in every solution. This idea was reinforced recently after the collapse of Afghanistan when the Americans pulled out troops. Soon after, Europe and Brussels started a discussion that if the Americans were so ineffective in Afghanistan, then we should come back to the idea of a European army, European strategic autonomy, without the Americans. So, there is no chance in the near future for a more active role of the United States in solving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

What is the best way to resolve this conflict?

First of all, Ukraine should be stronger, able to defend itself. Certainly, the country will not be able to win the military conflict with Russia. But Ukraine must be be strong enough to prevent the escalation of the conflict. Because the Russians may not have the ambition to occupy the whole of Ukraine, but they may have the ambition to fragment Ukraine farther and take some other parts of the country – for example, Mariupol to cut off Ukraine from the Azov Sea or maybe even Odesa to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea. So, Ukraine should be ready to defend the rest of the territory. But, on the other side, we should also put pressure on the Europeans and the Americans to create a real, viable and effective format to deal with Russia. We also need to strengthen the sanctions on Russia.

I think there are a lot of things to do in terms of sanctions. We have to impose sanctions on the larger Russian population. Many Russians are supposed to know the price of the war. Celebrities, sportsmen, people of culture, businesses are not affected by the fact that Putin is waging war against Ukraine. If we cut them off from Western markets, from institutions, from games, theatres, movies, football matches on our territories, they will appreciate the real price of the war. We can get rid of the Russians, for instance, interpreters, assistants in the European institutions; we have to close possibilities for interns or scientists. In some cases, we should close off the resorts where Russians spend holidays. And this is still a peaceful solution but, I would say, the Russian society would feel it very strongly if they are marginalised, ostracised from western societies. I cannot accept, for example, the situation that Russian soldiers, young guys in their 20’s are shooting at people in Donbas, and, at the same time, we are watching Spartak Moskva playing football in Paris. These may be the very same people. They are playing football today, but tomorrow they will be in Donbas. Or the opposite: yesterday they were in Donbas, and tomorrow they learn how to play football in Paris at the Stade de France. So, as I said, they have to learn the real price of waging the Putin’s war.

Mr. Waszczykowsky, do you think that more sanctions should be targeted against the regime in Russia and its supporters? 

The regime is doing quite well. They can travel, they can participate in international conferences, Putin can host Madame Merkel, as if nothing happened. Can you imagine the situation 80 years ago during the Second World War with the Nazis and fascists fighting the war with half of Europe and the other half of Europe maintaining a normal relationship with them? Now, Putin is an imperialist. He attacked Georgia, he attacked Ukraine. He tried to partition Ukraine, and he must be punished for this. We cannot maintain contacts with him.

Recently Putin’s press secretary Dmitriy Peskov warned about countermeasures if Ukraine joins NATO. And here we see a vicious circle. If Ukraine were a member of NATO, probably the war wouldn’t have happened in Donbas. But if Ukraine wants to join NATO, that might not be possible because of the current war. Even if Kyiv joins the Alliance, we will have another escalation. How do we break this circle?

Right now, it’s an artificial discussion, of course. This discussion was legitimate in 2008. In 2008, there was a real possibility of granting Ukraine something that was called the Membership Action Plan (MAP). But of course, some countries like Germany and others were scared that this would provoke Russia. So, Ukraine was not granted this path to membership. It was not membership itself, but it was at least a road to NATO membership. Right now, with unsecured borders, with an unsettled situation in Donbas, of course, there is no discussion about the membership of Ukraine. The only discussion is about some kind of neutralisation or some sort of Finlandisation of Ukraine, in order to protect the independence of this country without NATO membership. But, of course, even this kind of status is not acceptable for Putin because maybe he doesn’t want to occupy the whole country, but rather subordinate it and be sure that Ukraine is not on the side of the West.

The Kremlin engaged people with Russian passports in occupied territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the elections to the State Duma in September. Is it acceptable from a legal point of view?

I’m not an expert on this kind of international law. I understand that if they decided to get a Russian passport, of course, they became Russian citizens with all the legal rights to participate in the Russian political life. Certain parts of Donbas are fully controlled by the Russians, so they can do whatever they want right now. Certainly, we are not going to recognise any change in the status of Donbas. But yes, people living in Donbas with the Russian document can do whatever they want regarding the situation in Russia: vote in the Russian elections for a Russian politician in Moscow. We cannot stop them.

Let’s speak about the situation in Ukraine. What are the best reforms in this country and what do you consider as the worst ones?

I am trying not to judge. Ukraine is a sovereign country. And all its reforms are its responsibility. We, the European Union’s members, have not offered Ukraine an EU membership. So, unless we do it, we have no right to impose any suggestions, ideas on how you are supposed to reform your country. If you start the process of accession and negotiations with the EU in the future, then, of course, we’ll have to interfere, to show you all acquis communautaire. In this case, the European Union and EU institutions will have the right to judge, to monitor the progress of the reforming of Ukraine.

Unofficially, we can certainly discuss this at conferences and share our experience with you, tell you how we reformed our countries. For instance, our administration in Poland, in the Czech Republic, and other countries will gladly share ideas with you on how to fight corruption. But it is up to you to decide what kind of suggestions to pick from us. Poland has been quite active in recent years, trying to show our successful reforms over local governments, local institutions, “gromady” as in Ukraine. So, if you’d like to copy or import some of the results of our reforms, of course, you’re welcome to do this. But you are the sovereign of your country, and you are responsible for specific reforms.

But do you like any particular reform in Ukraine?

I do care about your independence, of course. So, I care about your security reforms, how you spend money on security, train troops and educate your army. I think the Ukrainian armed forces are much, much stronger right now than six or seven years ago. Especially in Poland, we were absolutely shocked when the “little green men” showed up in 2014 on the Crimean Peninsula, and you lost this territory without a single shot. Your men, your army or military personnel leaving there were supposed to defend your country, but they just gave up everything. For us Poles, fighting for centuries for our independence, it was a shocking situation. I think this will never happen again because you are changing the posture of your army right now. And your army is going to defend Ukraine. I really admire your reforms in the security and military sectors.

Do you have a message for Ukrainians?

Yes. You made a mistake. I mean Ukrainians committed a mistake at the beginning of your last revolution at the Maidan because you put all the trust in Berlin and Paris and neglected Warsaw. You thought that because Ukraine was so important for Poland as kind of a buffer state that separates us from Russia. So anyhow, you were taking support of Poland for granted. And you concentrated mostly on Berlin and Paris. And you lost. We sort of discovered this marginalisation, this negligence of Kyiv, its decision to rely on German and French support. Yeah, you have it on paper. But in reality, you don’t. So, do not try to look for friends in remote areas. Try to find friends around you.

Natalia Richardson, journalist, editor at Brussels Ukraїna Review

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