Swedish foreign minister tells Polish paper Putin to blame for Ukraine crises

Text of report by Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita on 7 June

[Interview with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt by Jedrzej Bielecki; place and date not given: "Putin Fears Democracy the Most"]

The Americans did not realize until September how high the stakes were in the game over Ukraine – says Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt

[Bielecki] When you launched the Eastern Partnership programme with [Polish Foreign Minister] Radoslaw Sikorski six years ago, did you realize that it would be the beginning of a big geopolitical contest with the Kremlin?

[Bildt] There are three wavering countries in Europe whose fate affects the entire continent. These countries are, of course, Turkey, which is suspended between Asia and the West, Serbia, whose position determines whether there is war or peace in the Balkans, and Ukraine, of course, whose development path determines the fate of all of Eastern Europe. From the very beginning, I realized how fundamentally important it was to establish a modern and democratic Ukrainian state.

[Bielecki] Was this supposed to deal a deathly blow to Russia’s imperial ambitions?

[Bildt] Dmitry Medvedev was president in 2008 when we initiated the Polish-Swedish initiative. This is a major difference compared to today. I remember how just two years later, when Sweden held the EU presidency, Medvedev talked to me in Stockholm about the need to modernize Russia based on cooperation with the EU. At that time, Medvedev’s programme did not differ much from our Eastern Partnership. The turning point came in 2012 along with Putin’s return to power and his fundamental project known as the Eurasian Union. Starting last August, Putin started doing everything to destroy our cooperation with Ukraine.

[Bielecki] So in 2008 you had hoped that Ukraine could be included in the Western world in a completely conflict-free way?

[Bildt] I still believe that Russia needs to modernize based on cooperation with the West and that it will return to this concept, although this will not happen quickly, of course. After all, Ukraine could conduct free trade with both us and Russia. Nevertheless, Putin has gone in a completely different direction and each successive crisis in Ukraine is caused by his actions.

[Bielecki] During its initial years, interest in the Eastern Partnership among the EU’s main countries was minimal. Did Germany or France not realize how high the stakes were in this game?

[Bildt] This is an exaggeration, although there is some truth to it. The partnership was launched in 2008 when the EU presidency was held by France. At that time, Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through, what was it called? – the Mediterranean Union, I think. A pompous ceremony was organized in Paris and attended by Asad and Mubarak. We agreed to support this on condition that the French support the Eastern European initiative.

[Bielecki] So the French believed that the [Eastern Partnership] initiative was just as insignificant as the Mediterranean Union?

[Bildt] There was another factor: Georgia. All Eastern European countries suddenly started to fear Russia and their politicians were coming to Brussels to ask for help. There was big pressure.

[Bielecki] So the leading European countries blindly supported the partnership and did not realize just how important it was until right before the Vilnius summit last November, when Viktor Yanukovych unexpectedly refused to sign the association agreement?

[Bildt] Another exaggeration. However, at a meeting of the Council of the European Union last September, it is true that few people shared my assessment when I drew attention to the brutal trade war that Russia had declared against Ukraine and to the fundamental change in the Kremlin’s policies. The Americans also did not see it at the time. It was not until a few weeks later that they understood what this was all about.

[Bielecki] This is not the only example showing how the forecasts made about what would happen in the East were inaccurate. People in the West not only failed to foresee Yanukovych’s sudden refusal to sign the association agreement, but they also did not foresee his flight from Kyiv at the end of February.

[Bildt] When it comes to Yanukovych, even the people from his inner circle did not fully realize that he would ultimately not sign the association agreement. With respect to his flight in February, this is still a mystery to me. After all, the agreement that was concluded was very beneficial for him. It gave him security, at least until the end of the year. And then he suddenly disappeared; he started packing money into helicopters and fled. I think Moscow was surprised by this. Only Yanukovych’s personality can explain this.

[Bielecki] Are you not concerned about what will happen now that the Germans have taken over the initiative and are the ones who are making the decisions about the EU’s policy towards Ukraine and its relations with Russia?

[Bildt] In contrast to the Mediterranean Union, which created separate institutions, it was already assumed in 2008 that the Partnership would be closely tied to EU institutions and that it would in some sense belong to the EU as a whole, as opposed to belonging to Sweden and Poland. Consequently, we assumed at the very outset that everyone would be involved, including Berlin.

[Bielecki] However, will Angela Merkel not put relations with the Kremlin ahead of Ukraine’s interests?

[Bildt] Germany has been a very constructive partner in this matter the whole time. In 2010, Merkel put Russia to a test during a meeting with Medvedev in Berlin. She agreed to cooperate with Moscow on security matters on condition that the relatively secondary problem of Transnistria was resolved. When it turned out that nothing was being done to solve the Transnistria issue then Germany fundamentally changed its approach to Russia.

[Bielecki] Germany or only the German Christian Democrats?

[Bildt] Germany. There is no fundamental difference between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats on this matter.

[Bielecki] Today, Putin is in power. Memories are all that are left of Medvedev. Has the Partnership turned into the most important arena of confrontation between East and West?

[Bildt] The Russians are afraid of democracy. Putin himself has said that the biggest threat to the security of the existing balance of power in Russia is an outbreak of a new Orange Revolution in his country. And he is absolutely right about this. Putin’s Eurasian Union is fundamentally a defensive bastion. But is this a Russian empire? It does not seem so, given that the governments in Minsk and Astana are apprehensive or even fearful of this project.

[Bielecki] So Sweden’s engagement on behalf of Ukraine’s future is revenge for the [Swedish] defeat at Poltava?

[Bildt] No, of course not (laughs). Poltava was a strategic mistake. All we want today is to ensure that Ukrainians have the right to choose their own fate. If they conclude that they prefer the Eurasian Union then we will not protest. However, when they themselves are knocking at Europe’s gate and want to be with us, we cannot say "no." This would be morally unacceptable.

[Bielecki] To what extent can Europe get involved in supporting Ukraine?

[Bildt] Poland’s success stemmed from the political decisions that were made by Poles themselves. The EU’s support played a marginal role. Ukraine has a unique historic opportunity today. The country has always been divided into regions to the west and east of the Dnieper River. This changed, however, in the last election. The whole country voted the same way. Ukraine is thus becoming a single country for the first time, and it is a country that is aware of its problems, starting with corruption. This is the moment in which a suitable leader could thoroughly change the country and direct it down a path that could be called the Polish path, although Ukraine is a much more complicated case than Poland was.

[Bielecki] Assuming such an optimistic scenario, could the Germans agree to accept Ukraine into the EU in 7-10 years?

[Bildt] This is not the time to decide the membership issue. Countries such as Sweden and Poland would probably respond positively to Ukraine’s request for membership, assuming the aforementioned scenario takes place. Whether or not the Germans and French would do the same is something that we shall see. The EU assesses each country based on its merits, but when an efficient and modern democracy knocks at the door persistently enough, it is ultimately allowed inside.

[Bielecki] Putin has reportedly withdrawn his troops from the border. Has he really changed his approach to Kyiv?

[Bildt] Russian combatants are getting through to the Donbas region, and I do not think that there is a single Western leader who is naive enough to believe that this is happening without Moscow’s approval. Putin is therefore playing a double game. Yesterday, I read some remarks on the Kremlin’s website made by Putin himself. In the same sentence, he says that we need to establish contacts with the authorities in Kyiv and the separatists in eastern Ukraine. We shall see whether he really recognizes Poroshenko as president.

[Bielecki] Is Russia’s subversion not reason enough to impose serious sanctions on the country?

[Bildt] It is important that Putin realizes that this is what will happen if he exacerbates the situation.

[Bielecki] What would he have to do for such sanctions to be imposed?

[Bildt] I would prefer not to be overly precise. What is most important is that we support Ukraine. If Ukraine is weak then Putin will win. If it is strong then he will suffer defeat. Russia is already having to contend with a huge exodus of capital. The president of the European Central Bank told me that you cannot find 1,000-euro notes anywhere because the Russians are using them to move their savings out of the country. They are afraid to buy dollars.

[Bielecki] Could fear of Russia lead Sweden to join NATO?

[Bildt] I do not think that Swedes are afraid of Russia. They are rather suspicious of Russia. But the Ukrainian crisis has definitely changed their attitudes. When it comes to NATO membership, however, Finland would have to make the same decision. We are not going to do this on our own, for historical and geographical reasons.

Source: Rzeczpospolita, Warsaw, in Polish 7 Jun 14 p A10

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