Studio guest Sergei Oznobnischev, Director of the Institute for Strategic Assessment and Deputy-Chairman of the “Russia-USA” Association (studio guest), Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent.
In terms of this whole process, the things are heating up and what can all these parties do to try to influence the situation, freeze it and help cooler heads prevail, if this is possible?
Sergei Oznobnischev: First of all, it is possible and it will definitely happen. I do not believe that the full-fledged war may take place. The problem is that there is no agreement about the foundations of what is going on between the sides. All of them say that we will not participate in this meeting, because there is no progress. But every side considers that the progress is something that is well understood only by them. So, there is a great misunderstanding, but still, all the sides want progress. And what is happening now is the preparatory work and every side is trying to get the best position for the negotiations. But I'm confident that the Astana process will start and it will be successful. There is no other way.
Lately it looks like France has been very eager to try to trump Germany and almost position itself as a leading EU negotiator in this crisis. Do you think this is realistic? When Russia wants to talk to Europe, do they talk to Germany, do they talk to France or both of them?
Richard Sakwa: They should be talking to Federica Mogherini – the head of the European external action service. And that is another element. It is astonishing how marginalized the EU as an institution has become, as part of this Ukrainian crisis. In terms of France and Germany, clearly, Germany holds the whip hand. Angela Merkel has met Putin and talked to him at least 40 times since the crisis began last year. And Germany has certainly been the driving seat. But it has got nowhere.
Angela Merkel is coming to these negotiations and the whole issue with the certain agenda, with certain issues, with a certain baggage, if you like. She is not part of the old German tradition of social democracy. She clearly comes to it as an outsider from Germany’s traditional position, as the intermediary in the old Bismarckian tradition of an honest broker. So, yes, France does have an opportunity. I think the fact that Hollande invited everybody in the Normandy format and Putin to that meeting in June last year was extremely important. So, I think France, with its long tradition of diplomacy has an important part to play in all of this.
This troubled diplomatic process is now shifting to Kazakhstan, which means that the ex-Soviet republics are also trying to play a role. What do you make out of that?
Richard Sakwa: I welcome it enormously. I think that now, that Russia is part of the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia has to understand that it is part of a community and that this means showing responsibility, and indeed negotiating and discussing, and preparing its positions with its four partners, now with Armenia. And this is the whole game shift going on. So, I very much welcome it.
I think that Nazarbayev is a very experienced and wise leader in many ways. So, he’s got an ability, one hopes, and of course long traditional links, just as Belarus does, with Ukraine and with the Ukrainian leadership. And so, they then can act as an intermediaries and honest brokers, because, quite honestly, the dialog or even understanding and certainly trust between Moscow and Kiev has disappeared entirely. Therefore, any external actor who can try to knock the heads together and to get to some sort of a deal is to be welcomed.
Do I get it right that when we see Belarus and Kazakhstan, and other republics being involved, the whole idea of this process looks more credible?
Richard Sakwa: I agree, it has to be a multilateral format. The EU has in many ways failed, and it’s been spending a lot of time to try to ensure that the foreign policy is more coordinated. And that is why the European external action service was established. But it is interesting that in all of this the EU hasn’t been able to act as an effective intermediary.
Let’s hope that other external actors could do so and take away the pressure and all the prejudices. Moscow needs a diplomatic support from its allies to explain that the Ukrainian crisis is not simply what the Western vision would have it – as simply an aggressive external action – but that it is a complex situation which has developed over many years. And therefore, the more sensible actors you can bring to temper and limit the one-sided view from the various perspectives, then it has to be welcomed.
This week we've seen the publications saying that the EU is considering the option of lifting the sanctions once the Ukrainian conflict is resolved. But again, they are hinting that the ball is on the Russia’s court. Is it a fair assessment?
Richard Sakwa: There are a number of European countries – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria – who are opposed to the continuation of sanctions. So, what we see this week is a preemptive move by what I call the new Atlanticists – these people who consider the EU as just one wing of the Atlantic alliance. And they now want to continue with the sanctions. I mean the US.
We know how long it took to lift Jackson-Vanik, even though in the US the sanctions could be lifted simply at the moment by an executive order. But as we know Congress is trying to remove this ability of Obama, or whoever else is the president of the US, to lift the sanctions quite easily. At the moment, it is easy for the US to stop; it isn’t so easy for the EU. They’ve got themselves into a very difficult position now, because they are held hostage to all sorts of other forces, including their own conditionality. It is a fair assessment that the sanctions could well be for a long time, but, hopefully, not forever.
Could it be possible that the US doesn’t want Europe to ease the sanctions and that it might try to intervene in this process?
Richard Sakwa: We can assume exactly that, that the US does not want the sanctions to be lifted. It is a unilateral declaration that Russia has to do this and the other, instead of understanding that the Ukrainian conflict needs to step back and have a dialog, including the dialog with the insurgents in the Donbas. So, indeed, the West has got itself into a complete dead end in which it is simply demanding Russia to behave in the way which it simply cannot do. It is not quite clear what the long-term view of Russia is, but it is certainly looking to deescalate the Donbas conflict and to achieve some sort of peace agreement.