As the chief representative of his country in Brussels for the last 12 years, Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov has firsthand experience in the ups and downs of relations between the Russian Federation and the European Union.
The experienced diplomat – who has also served as deputy minister of foreign affairs – began his career at the USSR’s embassy in Athens in the 1970s, speaks fluent Greek and never misses an opportunity to visit the country.
His most recent trip was to Athens for the Economist conference, which was dedicated to economic ties between the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) and China, and prompted this interview.
What were your impressions from the Economist conference in Athens?
This year’s conference was initially intended to address economic ties between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). China was added along the way, with the One Belt One Road Initiative. The overall conclusion is that, in today’s complex world, these unions and initiatives can constructively work together.
The 2013-14 Ukrainian crisis was sparked by the tough choice faced by then president Viktor Yanukovych between the EU and the EAEU. Isn’t this proof of the fact that both have a fundamentally competitive character?
Without going into details regarding the events of that time, I will say that before abandoning his post Yanukovych had agreed to a compromise that was being pushed by EU countries Germany, France and Poland. The opposition at the time, which is now governing Ukraine, did not fulfill its commitments. In any case, what was done is done. Ukraine is a separate issue, and the two unions, the EU and the EAEU, each have their own dynamic.
It is nevertheless a fact that the Ukrainian crisis sank EU-Russian relations to the lowest they’ve been since the Cold War. Under what terms could this unfortunate – for Greece as well – predicament be overcome?
I wouldn’t be a diplomat if I weren’t an optimist. Indeed, our relations with the EU are at a low right now, but I wouldn’t say that the Ukrainian crisis is the only factor that is responsible. Sure, it played a catalytic role, but the problems had already been there. The issue is where we go from here.
To borrow a term from nuclear physics, I believe we will see a critical mass of political will from within the EU that will set off a creative chain reaction to normalize relations. This does not mean we will go back to where we were before, because neither side wants to go back to business as usual.
I’ve been involved in Russian-EU relations for the past 18 years and I have been in Brussels for 12. I have seen periods of ups and periods of downs. Maybe relations will become more pragmatic in the near future, with less talk and more content regarding “strategic cooperation.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently suggested a UN peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine in order to help defuse the crisis and lead to a lifting of sanctions by both sides. Do you see a positive European reaction to this?
From the start, when it was decided to send an OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] mission to Ukraine, we had no objections to it using light weapons. The OSCE, however, is not a legal entity and cannot execute such missions. President Putin has now made a significant step by suggesting that the OSCE observers be accompanied by armed UN peacekeepers. We’ve seen a positive reaction from various countries, including France and Germany.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, in fact, recommended that the mission have a broader scope and Russia has agreed. Only two governments are opposed, the Ukrainian and the American.
Russia has been accused of tampering with the US elections in favor of Donald Trump, but also in the French and German polls, and even in the referendums in Scotland and Catalonia.
You forgot the Austrian elections, which are more recent. Is there anyone we’ve left out? Let’s be serious. This climate of hysteria that has pervaded the US and is spreading to Europe stems from domestic political turmoil in America. It is obvious that certain Democrats are trying to shed responsibility for last year’s defeat and dump it on someone else. These circles think they’ve found the perfect victim in the Russian Federation. They’re doing everything they can: special committees in Congress, a special prosecutor, and all this without a shred of evidence of Russian involvement.
Surely it is unusual for a close aide of Present Trump who also served as a security adviser (Michael Flynn) to have financial dealings with Russia and frequent appearances on Russia Today?
A lot of Democratic Party officials also appeared on Russia Today. That a close aide of Mr Trump met once with the Russian ambassador, whose position demands that he meet public figures from across the political spectrum, is certainly not strange.
The euro crisis, Brexit, and rising Euroskepticism and separatism have cast doubt on the EU’s future. Is this a positive development for Russia?
Yes, the EU is going through a crisis on many levels, as Mr [Jean-Claude] Juncker recently observed. We have the ongoing eurozone crisis, the refugee-migration crisis, Brexit… It’s no surprise that populist parties in many countries are gaining popularity.
Russia never saw the European Union as an adversary. We have always viewed it as an important partner. We want to see it strong, serious and independent in its decision making, and we are always ready to continue our cooperation. We are not responsible for the present situation. When the critical mass I mentioned before is formed, they will know where to find us.
The EU and Russia are on the same page in regard to the Iranian nuclear program, which is being undermined by Trump’s stance. Do you believe that the deal can be salvaged nonetheless?
I hope so, yes. The entire international community supports the agreement, which was ratified unanimously by the UN Security Council, including the USA. They are therefore obliged to honor their vote.
Are you worried about the situation in regard to North Korea? Why would Kim Jong-un accept a nuclear deal when the US is being so unpredictable?
Such a development is not unlikely. The leaders of North Korea aren’t blind, they saw what happened with Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi, and they may think that nuclear weapons are their only defense. The difference is that, in contrast to Iraq where the famous weapons of mass destruction were nonexistent, North Korea already has nuclear weapons and this may restrict Washington to more realistic choices.