I think that this workshop is opportune and very timely. It offers us an occasion to reflect on events that are taking place not far away from here, and that bring back on European land something that we deluded ourselves into considering a thing of the past: territorial change of borders by means that are unacceptable according to the international law.
And this is happening in a moment in which the European Union is wondering about its own future, its tasks, the scope of its own mission, its global role and the very same meaning of sovereignty, a term that has clearly different interpretations here and in Moscow.
Plenty of words have been used to discuss the recent Ukrainian political developments, the massive protests that broke out in Kyiv, former President Yanukovych’s escape and his removal from power, and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The crisis has been even described as the most dangerous confrontation between Russia and the Western countries since the end of the Cold War.
Indeed, if our response to the events in Eastern Europe is not appropriate, Russia’s annexation of Crimea might represent a real turning point for the international order, reshaping Europe’s geopolitical map and jeopardizing relations with Moscow for years to come.
Certainly, events in Crimea are another piece of evidence of Russia’s recovered assertiveness and sense of empowerment. Perhaps, and to a certain extent, they might be understood as the act of self-determination of the Russian majority living in the small peninsula. But the way they took place makes them objectionable, to say the least.
The Crimea’s Parliament has, unilaterally, decided to declare independence from Ukraine and to join Russia, and a referendum has been held to ask the inhabitants whether they approved or not the parliamentary vote – a referendum that, as we know, has produced an overwhelming result in favour of annexation.
Nevertheless, parliamentary vote and referendum have occurred under duress of military intervention, under conditions, according to witnesses, that did not allow for a completely free vote, and under the influence of extremely aggressive Russian television propaganda, available also in Russian speaking Crimea and portraying protesters in Kyiv as violent nationalists that represented a threat to Ukraine Russian population.
Of course, President Putin has repeatedly asserted that developments in Crimea were legal. And he has mentioned the principle of people’s self-determination and the independence of Kosovo – which, as it has been noted ironically, Russia has strongly opposed and never recognized – to justify Crimea’s secession.
However, I would like to recall here that Moscow never allowed for Chechnya’s self-determination and always advocated the principles of the inviolability of borders and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, major differences between Russia and the Western countries concerned exactly this postulate (let’s just think of Iraq, of the above mentioned Kosovo, or of the more recent intervention in Libya).
In fact, I think that the principle of self-determination is only a smoke screen to disguise the Kremlin’s wish for its past grandeur, for the recovery of the old sphere of influence, re-establishing its control over political and economic developments in neighbouring countries, therefore for a world order based on different principles, as President Putin’s rhetoric about Russia being “cornered for centuries”, or about the Russians having become the world’s largest “divided population” after the fall of the USSR would suggest [Putin’s speech before the Duma on March 18].
The European Union cannot abide such confrontational stance. Yet, it is not in our interest to go back to a Cold War climate.
Last September, I attended a very interesting forum in Poland, where I had been asked to tackle the question of the relations between NATO and Russia. Let me repeat here what I affirmed in that occasion. We do not want the Cold War back, but we are still called to deal with some of the unresolved questions of the Cold War period. And this is happening twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in spite of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the international order.
The world is ever more multipolar; the United States is less and less a “European power”, in fact, it is increasingly shifting the centre of gravity of its international interests towards the Middle East and the Pacific. Yet, despite the urgency and our ¬– more or less – good intentions, the mood of distrust that permeates the relations between Europe and Russia has not been overcome; the much expected re-design of our mutual relations never occurred. Today they resemble more a “controlled confrontation” rather than the “structured cooperation” we aimed to achieve.
And Russia, as mentioned, it is now acting on the global scene with a new aggressiveness, describing its own political system as a “sovereign democracy”, a definition that it is little appreciated by the West, but underlines, in my opinion, the fact that Moscow will never accept interferences in its internal affairs.
I think that the emphasis on the term “sovereignty” have repercussions also on Russia’s foreign policy, and implies its aim to consolidate its position as an independent centre of power and influence.
This said, let me be frank, I do not think that it will be possible to “recover” Crimea. But I think it will be essential to preserve the territorial integrity and the actual independence from Moscow of the rest of Ukraine and of the other countries that risk falling under Putin’s definition of a divided Russia, strengthening their relations and partnership with the European Union.
More sanctions will probably be inevitable. But we must take into due account our reciprocal interdependence. Yes, many European countries need Russian gas. But Russia – whose economy is not in great shape (its growth rate has declined to only 1.3% in 2013, compared to about 7-8% of the last decade) – needs even more our markets and our technologies. Nevertheless, Putin might decide to opt for even riskier actions in order to divert attention from its internal economic weaknesses, or it could think that it is worthier to do it, counting on the well-known European divisions when the member states have to formulate a common approach towards a third country.
Moreover, we must consider to what extent Russia’s isolation is in our interest. We need to cooperate with Russia in other critical scenarios: let’s just think of Syria – a conflict that, I am afraid, has been almost completely shadowed by the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis – or the nuclear deal in Iran. Without a fully involved Moscow, solution of these international conundrums will be more difficult. Maybe impossible. So, we must maintain some room for dialogue with the Kremlin.
I think that Europe needs above all to reset its relations with Moscow. And to do this, it needs, first of all, to decrease its dependence on Russian gas supplies, in order to reduce Russia’s capability to use gas a geopolitical tool and the EU member states’ differences when it comes to dealing with Moscow. To this aim, we shall increase energy diversification, increasing security of supply and competition. This will enhance Europe’s strength and would consequently limit President Putin’s reasons for assertiveness. From this point of view, I consider unacceptable and humiliating that negotiations on the future of Urkaine between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are taking place without a representative of the European Union, and even without a representative of the Kyiv government.
This said, Europe shall make a major effort to encourage the democratic and institutional development of its neighbours. Because, I think, it is a fact that Ukraine would not have been such a vulnerable target, if it had not been plagued by internal instability, poor governance, economic mismanagement and corruption.
Ukraine’s elections will take place in less than two months – on May 25. Therefore, in the short term, we must ensure that these elections will be fair and transparent. And to this aim, we must do our best to allow that objective information is available to Ukrainian voters.
I think that at the base of a European strategy towards the crisis in Ukraine, there must be a clear understanding and a broad agreement among the EU member states of what the European Union’s projection abroad shall be. It is high time we ask ourselves hard questions. Are we ready to take on a more active role in our own security? Are we ready to take on our international responsibilities? I think that the Ukrainian crisis has once more highlighted the fact that the EU is called to play a more effective role on the global scene. And this time, we cannot waste this opportunity.