I meet Carl Bildt at the airport on his way from Stockholm to Kyiv where he will be participating in the YES Annual Meeting, also known as Yalta Forum. The meeting was first organized 13 years ago in the city of Yalta, Crimea and turned into an annual platform for world leaders to debate on global issues and Ukraine’s place in the world. The Swedish politician and diplomat agrees with my nostalgic regret that the forum moved to Kyiv after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and shares my hope that one day it will come back to Yalta. “But it will not happen tomorrow,” Bildt firmly states.
He also shares that visiting Ukraine once in a while, he can see this country changing in a better way – the economy is developing and reforms have an effect, despite challenging circumstances.
Asked about the ongoing war in Donbas, Bildt states that the stronger Ukraine’s society and economy become, the more Russia will see Donbas as a hopeless project and will gradually disengage. Shortly before the Forum, he spoke to Euromaidan Press about the future of relations between Russia, the EU, and Ukraine, the chances of Minsk Agreements, and hopes for ending the war in the East.
Should the West recognize Russian parliamentary elections, which will also take place in occupied Crimea?
I don’t think we’ll recognize any elections held in Crimea. However, I don’t think we’ll ever discuss it in terms of recognizing Russian elections because Russian elections have their own characteristics. We’ve never considered them to be fully democratic elections anyhow. So there has never been a question of whether we recognize or don’t recognize elections. However, I think it will be made clear that we don’t accept that elections are held in Crimea.
Condemning is one thing, cooperating with Russian officials chosen by Crimean voters is an affirmation of annexation.
I don’t think there will be any contact whatsoever with those elected from Crimea. Our contact with the Duma is also very limited in Moscow. I don’t think western embassies will have any sort of contact with the MPs coming from Crimea. And sanctions remain – just today I saw that the EU extended all Crimea-related sanctions.
Looks like now Russia may actually get back to PACE, the resolutions of which it has been ostentatiously ignoring.
That’s the debate that goes on and I don’t know the latest state of affairs at the moment. We’ll have to find some in-between solution. There is an interest in having a dialogue with Russia on other issues and the Council of Europe has traditionally had a dialogue with Russia on the rule of law issues. Some of that dialogue of the past years have not been entirely bad and has been appreciated by parts of Russian civil society – which is important. There are elements of Russian civil society in Russia that have an interest in this. But I guess they will have to find some sort of compromise.
It’s not only about PACE, there are many other things that the Council of Europe does in terms of dialogue on the rule of law, and exactly how this will be related, I don’t know.
What would stop the West from going to business as usual with Russia?
Business as usual with Russia is not going to happen. At least not from EU’s side – Sanctions are going to be there until January at least, then we will review them. But if we have President Trump in the US, God knows what’s going to happen there.
On top of that, Russia’s economy is not doing that spectacular. And the business environment is not particularly good – it’s doing substantially worse than it used to. Independent of sanctions, things are going badly.
Sergei Markov, Putin’s advisor, told me in an interview that Russia should proceed with its external policy despite the harm it’s causing to own citizens, because “Russia fights back Europe that started this war.”
Some Russians are living in that fantasy world, it’s a fancy world that they have created themselves. I’m not quite certain whether Sergei Markov believes that, I think that unlikely he believes in what he was saying. That being said, there are people who believe it because this is the message they’re getting from Russian television, continuously over the past two years. And that is worrying because that will have a long-term deteriorating effect of the Russian political landscape and make it more difficult for Russia to take sort of rational both domestic and foreign policy decisions. I was in Moscow in April, and I was surprised by how much they were talking about September elections – not overly worried, but concerned with stability. That means they have reasons for promoting the narrative of being attacked by the West and Russia fighting back. I think that’s part of their efforts to control the political environment prior to the elections.
And then we have the presidential elections coming up in two years. We tend to regard Russian elections as not much of an election, we know who’s going to win, we know who is going to organize that win camp (does it even make sense?), but it seems like the experience they had after the last elections, with the big demonstrations in Moscow, has made them somewhat nervous.
The Kremlin’s victory in Ukraine seems to have neutralized those effects.
There has been no victory in Ukraine for Russia. Realistically speaking, Crimea was popular [in Russia] and still is. The Donbas war – I don’t think that’s popular. And I think those people who follow events know that they have essentially lost. If you go back to the spring of 2014, immediately after Crimea, when there was no question when they were launching this big Novorossiya thing, it was going to be sort of everything to the east of Dnieper and Odesa all the way to Moldova. That was the way it was told by the Russian media. That didn’t happen, they nearly lost all of it paying heavily militarily to preserve the small thing they have now. This is costly and irritating for them, so Crimea is popular, while Donbas is something they prefer not to talk about it.
French and German Foreign ministers made a statement today that Minsk Agreements have no alternative. Do you share that opinion?
I think that’s a fact. The Minsk Agreement is what we have, I think it’s unrealistic to negotiate anything else. The second agreement is extremely complicated and I can debate whether it’s possible to implement exactly how it’s phrased. But that broad framework is the only framework available for a long-term solution.
Ukraine wants disarmament, Russia wants elections. There is no way for the Agreements to work.
In theory, it could work – demilitarization, elections. You can have disarmament, that is possible to do if Russia agrees to it; it is perfectly possible to do elections, but it would have to be fairly substantial changes in the political climate there. And also provisions for 1,5 million IDPs.
I’m looking at your decentralization reform, which doesn’t affect Donbas yet. It’s very all-encompassing, and I’m surprised – do they want even broader powers?
Then, particularly in the Donbas case, there are very complicated economic arrangements because most of the Donbas industries prior to the war were de-facto dependent on the subsidies or arrangements with Kyiv. Without that, Donbas will collapse if it hasn’t already collapsed.
I don’t think there is an alternative. We have to struggle along the Minsk part and see if it at some point in time can work. At some point in time, I think the constellation of stars might change…
Is that how you call it in diplomacy, a constellation of stars?
Sometimes (smiles). Sometimes you just have to wait and be patient until the conditions change.
It looks like it can last at least a decade.
We don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen in Russia in two, three, five years. When I was in Moscow, I didn’t find anyone who was enthusiastic about Donbas. I didn’t see enthusiasm for “supporting the great fighters against the Ukrainian fascists” – that sort of thing that you heard in media, they’re completely wrong.