Interview with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, part 2. On US-Russia and US-EU relations, on Ukraine’s independence and NATO
VM: - Now, we have come to the US – Russia relations and US – EU relations. What do you think, how Trump policy will change the US – Russian and US – EU relations?
MR: - I think, in some respect, in terms of Russia relations, Trump’s arrival might help. Let me put forward the scenario, but just as an illustration, I’m sorry to come back to Ukraine, but it’s relevant, it’s the best example.
VM: - If as an illustration…
MR: - Russia, I suspect, would like to resolve this crisis in its relationship with the rest of the world. It’s not helping Russia, that crisis and the sanctions, political difficulties, and these people in the West would also like to see progress. When you have problems of that kind, they require compromises; they require both sides to make important concessions. In the case of Ukraine, my assumption is of what Russia would most like to see is Ukraine that is not in NATO, and they would like to see sanctions withdrawn, and they would like to see the situation, where they could, because of the cultural and social and historic links between Russia and Ukraine, have a positive relationship with the Ukraine government. From the West’s point of view, from the Ukraine’s point of view, they want to see an end to the destabilization of Ukraine, the re-integration of the Donbas into Ukraine so that its borders are not in dispute, an end all this nonsense about Novorossiya, because it’s still there in the background as an aspiration some have. Crimea is a very difficult problem. So that has to be in some way accommodated in a different way.
Now, let us assume, unless Putin is prepared to give as well as receive, there is no agreement, even with Trump. Let us assume, for the purpose of this discussion, that Mr. Putin knows, there is not going to be Novorossiya, that there will be no sways of Eastern Ukraine from Kharkov through the Donbas to Mariupol, to Crimea, to Odessa, that’s not going to happen, and that the more he destabilizes and has a frozen conflict, ultimately, it will do as much damage to Russia as to Ukraine itself if that is to continue.
Let’s assume that he recognizes that and wants the sanctions removed. OK. There is a making of a deal. Not just with Trump. Including Trump, but with all the relevant countries. I’m prepared to acknowledge that if it had been Hillary Clinton as a president, the same deal that he might do with Trump, would be more difficult for him, because if the Russian government allows the reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine that could be seen as a great climb down, a great defeat, a great setback, and if Hillary Clinton had be a president of the United States, much more difficult to concede.
With Trump being the principal Western negotiator, amongst the other countries, but the principal one, now we can see a situation where Putin and Trump say, well, we’ve discussed Ukraine along with the other countries, we’ve reached an agreement, we’ve both made concessions, we’ve both made compromises, we respect each other. These are two presidents, principal negotiators who respect each other, who are both being looking for a solution, and that’s what we’ve found. Politics is easier. The delivery back home is easier. So, that the positive side. So, that could be good. That could be positive. We’ll have to wait and see. But that’s only going to happen if on using Ukraine as an illustration, if Mr. Putin is going to make as many concessions as he expects to make, to get from the other side.
Now, from the other side, sanctions can be withdrawn, once the Minsk process is onward in substance, not just in words, but onwards in substance. Sanctions can be gradually withdrawn. The reality is Ukraine is not going to join NATO. There are many of us including myself in the West who don’t think that it ever will be appropriate to Ukraine to be a part of NATO, because that is not that sort of a treaty. So, that is the answer I get to your question.
VM: - What do you think about Trump and the forthcoming changes in the relations between the US and Europe?
MR: - Right. That is one area where we here in Britain disagree because Trump when asked about whether he would prefer, Europe that was united or Europe that was fragmented said, he could care less in either way, so he is indifferent in that matter. Theresa May has said, and I agree with this, that regardless of whether the United Kingdom is in the European Union or not, we want the European Union to prosper, to be successful, and to be united. Because if you have excessive fragmentation in Europe, that not only gets us back to a very difficult time that existed sixty-seventy years ago, which caused two world wars, not one, but two world wars.
So, we don’t want to in any way risk the reconciliation of the countries of Europe with each other, France and Germany in particular. We don’t want to risk that, but in addition we are going to be in a global world and in a world where China, and Russia, and United States, and, perhaps, India, are addressing global issues. Europe has to have as much of a common voice to do that as well. That’s why I personally voted for Britain to remain in the EU. For me, that was the most important reason.
VM: - Do you think it is possible that Trump, Putin, and European leaders will come to the idea of distribution of power and regional responsibilities? That means that the new Club of the Superpowers will appear as it was at the end of the Second World War. There is the United States, which may be the first among the equals, there is Europe, there is Russia, there is China, there is India… Do you think that this situation is impossible?
MR: - Yeah, I think there are 180 countries in the world, and I think it will be a very serious mistake and it will cause far more damage than any benefit, from believing that, somehow, a small group of powerful countries or regions can become a directorate of the world. That’s what happened after 1815, when Russia and Austria-Hungary, and so forth, sought to do that. But we’re a very different world today that is not feasible. And I think also… I think the big problem is, as far as I can understand, what the Russian President is most ambitious to achieve, is that the United States and Europe allow Russia have (38:51) droit de regard, a sphere of influence, a near-abroad, all of which are words, but behind that is a Russian ability to control how independent their neighbor, immediate neighbors that used to be in the Soviet Union, will all be allowed to be, and that is unacceptable and shall remain unacceptable. It is exactly what the Americans used to do when they had what was called the Monroe Doctrine. They said, Latin America, all of the Americas, North and South, that’s our bit of the world. Europe, stay away! And America believed that until Fidel Castro, and behaved as if it had, till Fidel Castro. And since the last 40 years even the Americans no longer believe they can tell and control Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, all countries with anti-America leading governments hostile to them. But, America does not like it, but it lives with it. It does not use the CIA to overthrow these governments, or to try to change their system of government in the way that they used to.
Likewise, the Soviet Union was not just the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a Russian empire going back to Peter the Great. And most Russian governments, believed and some still believe that for Russia to be secure it has to no just have good relations, of course, but to actually control.
VM: - Not to control only, but to be responsible.
MR: - Well, to be responsible means…
VM: - If we take, for example, Central Asia, the position of Moscow is that Russia is responsible for supporting the governments of the former Soviet Union countries against radical Islam, against…
MR: - Sure, sure… If it is done on a truly voluntary basis – yes, I agree with you. If Kirgizstan needs it because it is a small poor country.
VM: - Or Kazakhstan, for example.
MR: - Kazakhstan is much larger. It is more complicated. But does not matter which country, if a country like Kirgizstan or Kazakhstan genuinely wants to have Russian help and support because it is too weak by itself to do that, there is nothing wrong with that, nobody is objecting to that. But it’s not how it is seen in the Baltic States. That’s not how it is seen in Ukraine. It’s not how it is seen in Georgia. There it is seen as “not trying to help us, but trying to control us”. And they are right. That is what Mr. Putin’s policy is being aimed at, to control these countries, not entirely, not every aspect of them, but to limit the ability of these countries to behave as truly independent states.
And that goes back to the age of empires. And the Russian Empire used to coexist with the British Empire and the French Empire, the Spanish… But all these empires have disappeared, and we no longer say it… Even the French, who tried to keep control in some of the African francophone countries after they had become independent, they’ve now given it up, they know it’s no longer possible in real sense. So Russia today is the only country where its leaders still believe they are entitled to dictate which alliances their neighbors should be permitted to join. It’s not just NATO, European Union as well. It’s that Ukraine, for example, should join the European Union – what has that got to do with Russia? NATO is more complicated. NATO I can understand.
VM: - When the EU and Ukraine started negotiations on the conditions on which Ukraine could join the EU, Russia asked to be invited and to be at the table during the negotiations. This appeal was refused. As a result, the links and the relations, especially economic relations between Ukraine and Russia were broken, and within two years, the GDP in Ukraine has dropped nearly 40-50 percent. The refusal by the EU to allow Russia to participate in the negotiations was one of the reasons of the conflict and the fall of the Ukrainian economy.
MR: - That’s not what I was aware of, that is part of it, because what is happening in the Eastern Ukraine is because of the public spending the government has to do on defense, on its military capability, of course. That’s what happens with the countries. The Syrian economy has collapsed because there is a war going on. When you have wars, that’s what happens.
VM: - But nevertheless, you know, the biggest industries, especially the space industry, aviation, ship building industry, food production… These industries were directed and linked to Russian market and now most of these industries collapsed, some of them have been lost forever, and the EU has done nothing to save them or to create new industries in Ukraine.
MR: -But you see, the sadness is…
VM: - “Antonov” is closed! The biggest Soviet aviation corporation has become the history, past. Dnepropetrovsk metallurgical plant, the oldest and biggest in Tsarist Russia, survived revolutions, civil and World wars and now shut down…
MR: - Yeah, but the sadness is Putin has for years used oil and gas as a political weapon. And he aimed not just at relationship with Ukraine, he did it in relationship with the Baltic Sea, he did it in relationships with some other countries, so that they were told unless you politically do what we want you to do we will stop providing gas, we will stop providing energy. So, they would never tolerate these countries diversified. But Ukraine is no longer dependent on Russia for its energy.
VM: - Hm… stilll…
MR: - Marginally, compared to what it was five years ago, ten years ago. And, in economic terms, Putin has done a huge disservice to Russia’s economic interest. Russia used to have huge exports of gas so forth to countries in Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Germany and Poland. So, now it will take time, but already these countries are diversifying. They are not prepared to be subject of what they see as blackmail. And in the future, so what does Russia have to do? It has had to do a deal with China to sell gas. And what Chinese have done, they say: “Well, we’ll buy your gas, but at a huge discount”. And Russians had no choice.
VM: - Ukraine also gets the Russian gas with 50% discount still, but prefers to buy the Russian gas from the European countries and to pay much more. In 2016, Ukraine has overpaid for gas 200 million euro. Having state debt equal to 130% of GDP, Ukraine can “afford” it, because it gets financial help from the US and EU. Rather strange independence…
You have just returned from Germany, from Munich, after G-20 foreign ministers meeting and the Security Conference, where important discussions and meetings took place. Tillerson and Lavrov, May and the EU leaders, Vice-President Mike Pence and Angela Merkel… What can we expect from these meetings? What was the feeling there? What do the leaders expect in the international affairs?
MR: - It is clear that Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis have persuaded the President that NATO must be supported , that aggression in Ukraine must stop and the Minsk agreement be fully implemented. It is also agreed that there can be no deal between the US and Russia on Ukraine without Ukraine being present at any negotiations.
(To be continued)