Michael Emerson: “EU’s sanctions against Russia is a warning that they could be intensified if there were renewed or intensified hostilities”

Associate Senior Research Fellow

In the current circumstances, the question of possible modification of the Minsk agreements is beside the point, said Michael Emerson, Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), the first EU Ambassador to the USSR and then Russia. In an interview with Promote Ukraine, the senior expert pointed out at the effectiveness of the EU sanctions against Moscow and expressed his doubts that the current protests in Russia will change the state of play.

What can we say about the failure of Minsk agreements? Should they be modified?

The Minsk agreement is a confusing complex of steps, accommodating at the time of their negotiation divergent strategic interests, and indeed ambiguous over what the ultimate objectives really are. The final step, consisting of Ukrainian control of its external Donbas border with Russia, seems completely inconsistent with Russian actions, including mass passportization by Russia of the inhabitants of the occupied regions. The unspoken objectives of both sides seems to include willingness to go along with the status quo. Russia sees an advantage in keeping it as a strategic vulnerability for Ukraine and unsettling influence on Ukrainian domestic politics, perhaps to include winning more support for pro-Russian factions in Ukraine. In Kyiv itself, there are voices outside the government who do not want Ukraine to take on the responsibility, and political and economic costs of re-integrating this obsolete economic and environmental disaster zone. Some look at the so-called Transdnistrian model under which the region would remain autonomous from Kyiv, dependent for security on Russia, yet gradually re-opening economically to Ukraine and the EU (Transdnistria has a limited variant on Moldova’s free trade agreement with the EU). In this way the politics of the region might very gradually change for the better – very gradually indeed, since it has only changed marginally in Transdnistria over nearly 30 years. In these circumstances, the question of ‘modifying’ the Minsk agreements is beside the point. The main game has to reveal itself first, not excluding a passive acceptance for many years of de facto Transdnistrianisation.

Foreign minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba said that to resolve the conflict in Donbas Ukraine needs to embark a direct dialogue with Russia. Is it feasible?

Dialogue is always possible. It may mean no more than talking to each other. But one should be under no illusions. See what Mr. Kozak is saying as pre-requisites to a further summit meeting. Each step in dealings with the Kremlin is a hazardous process.

Do you think that EU sanctions against Russia are effective?

They were originally introduced in 2014 when the Kremlin seemed to have been considering the hugely more ambitious Novorossiya strategic option, to move on from Donbas to take Odessa and the entire coastline down to Moldova, Transdnistria and Romania. That was stopped. Since then the continuing sanctions have hurt the Russian economy more than its counter-sanctions have hurt the EU. But their main impact today is a warning that they could be intensified if there were renewed or intensified hostilities.

Should the EU continue and probably strengthen their sanctions against Russia? 

Yes, continue in present circumstances, and, as just mentioned, intensified, ‘if’. The question then is what the ‘if’ might consist of. One new hypothesis concerns the acute water shortage in Crimea, for which some people in Russia think it would be a good idea to seize militarily some Ukrainian water infrastructures; in that case redoubling the sanctions.

Chairman of the New Solutions Center, former Representative of Ukraine to the EU Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, said that the most painful sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the cheapest ones for the West would be to give Ukraine the NATO Membership Action Plan and a prospect to join the EU. Do you agree with him?

Ambassador Yelisieiev is an extremely experienced and distinguished former ambassador and high level public servant. But he has to be sure what he wishes for. The much more modest act of signing the Association Agreement with the EU cost Ukraine a terrible loss of life and territory.

Moscow spends about 5 billion dollars a year on Crimea and Donbas, according to the Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine OIeksiy Reznikov. Do you think that ordinary Russians do and will accept this contribution?

Russia today is in an acute budgetary situation with the impact of Covid-19 on the oil market and thence state budget revenues. But Russia is not a democracy, and the Duma is a mere instrument of the Kremlin. So, what ordinary Russians may disagree with in official policies may not find its way easily into the work of the legislature.

With COVID-19 disinformation from Kremlin became even stronger. Is there any recipe how to fight Russia’s disinformation and fake news that are spread not only in Ukraine but in many other countries?

There have to be two recipes:

(a)  Credible own policies and information policies, corresponding to European values, including freedom of the media, and counter-disinformation actions.

(b)  Technically advanced cyber defence policies and actions.

There are protests in Russia against the changes in the Constitution, protesters chant “Putin, resign.” Do you think they have some chances to succeed? 

The Constitution has been changed, and Putin is installed with every possibility to have two more terms in office. Protests would have to gain hugely in intensity. Russia would have to become utterly ungovernable. Don’t hold your breath.

Natalia Richardson

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