Interview to Interfax: “Return to better relations with Russia possible, linked to resolution of conflict in eastern Ukraine”

Interview to Interfax correspondents Alexander Korzun and Viktor Onuchko ahead of my visit to Russia. Read on Interfax’ website

Question:Ms. Mogherini, what are you going to bring to Moscow? Can your first visit to Russia since you took office in 2014 be viewed as evidence of a softening EU position on Russia and a sign of the prompt overcoming of the crisis in bilateral relations? Does Russia remain a partner for you, or do you share the position of NATO on the need to deter Russia as a potential threat to the security of European countries?

Answer: Our relations with Russia are not what they used to be, nor are they what we would wish them to be. But the European Union is still the first trading partner for the Russian Federation, the first source of foreign direct investment, and Russian students are the first beneficiaries of the Erasmus+ program to study in the EU Universities, just to mention a few areas where our ties remain important to both of us. Not to mention our cooperation on some key foreign policy issues. So, my visit to Moscow shows what for me, for the European Union, is vital: in the world of today, you need to be frank on points of disagreement, build spaces for engagement and cooperation, and seek common solutions whenever and wherever our interests converge.Our points of disagreement are well known, but our channels of communication have always remained open. Contacts at all levels are constant on all the files that are priorities for both of us: bringing an end to the devastating war in Syria, the crisis in Libya, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, ensuring peace in Afghanistan, the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and the fight against terrorism, to mention just a few. There is no global power that can solve any of these challenges alone. Without cooperation among us, instability will continue and will spread.

Q.: The Russian side has said that after the EU introduced sanctions and other restrictions against Russia, the return to previous relations is impossible and has proposed to take an inventory of relations in order to define areas of interaction and cooperation. At the same time, Moscow has reproached Brussels for not having prepared for such work. What is the EU’s position? And how do you perceive the future of EU-Russia relations?

A.: The European Union has an extremely clear position when it comes to our relationship and engagement with Russia. A return to better relations is not only possible but desirable, and it is linked to the resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine – to the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements. Sanctions are not a policy in themselves, they are linked to the illegal annexation of Crimea and to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. We have repeated time and again that when the Minsk agreements are fully implemented, the related sanctions will be removed.In the meantime, our disagreements have not prevented us, and should not prevent us, from cooperating on issues where we believe cooperation can be useful and mutually beneficial: the need to counter terrorism, combatting climate change, engaging more in education and research, as well as cross border and regional cooperation. But there is also a need to see concrete, constructive steps from Russia with regard to protectionist trade measures, including in the agricultural and food sectors. What is important is to have substantial, productive discussions that can lead to mutually-beneficial solutions.

Q.: After the alleged chemical attack in Syria‘s Idlib, some Western countries, including in Europe, have started to speak about introducing additional sanctions against Russia, now because of Syria. What is the position of the EU and your position on this issue?

A.: The use of chemical weapons is a war crime; its perpetrators must be identified and held accountable – so we fully support the investigation that is being carried out by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and wait for its results.The attack that hit the town of Khan Sheikhun has shocked all of us and reminded of our shared priority and responsibility: to put all our energies in to bringing an end to this terrible war. This means guaranteeing that the ceasefire is implemented, and doing all we can, each of us, to encourage the parties to work for a political solution, supporting consistently and seriously the United Nations in their work to facilitate the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. This is what the European Union is doing: working with all relevant international partners to achieve this result, as reaffirmed at the Brussels Conference ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region‘ that the EU hosted on April 4-5, 2017. On that occasion, we also collectively mobilized more than $6 billion for humanitarian aid to Syrians, both inside the country and in the region. The European Union is and will remain the first provider of humanitarian assistance for Syrians. Since the beginning of the war the EU has been the leading donor in the international response to the crisis with more than 9.4 billion euros we dedicated to this. And we would be ready to support further, once reconciliation and reconstruction could start, on the basis of a political transition agreed in Geneva among the Syrian parties. All would benefit from a political solution to this terrible war: first and foremost the Syrian people, but also the entire region and the rest of the world, given the high priority we all give to defeating Daesh.

Q.: As to current EU sanctions against Russia, how fair are reports on growing disagreement within the EU over the feasibility of their endless prolongation? How substantial is the damage caused to the EU by sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions

A.: Every decision we have taken so far about sanctions was agreed by unanimity. And this unity is reconfirmed regularly, as sanctions are reviewed with decisions on their prolongation usually taken every 6 or 12 months. Having said that, we do not aim to extend sanctions ‘endlessly’: our aim is to see the conflict in eastern Ukraine solved with the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. As I said, sanctions in themselves are not a policy, but one of the tools the European Union, together with many other partners in the world, is using to achieve the end of the conflict in the east of Ukraine.

Q.: What is your assessment of Russia‘s actions in Syria? And how are large is the difference between the EU and Russia on the Syrian settlement, including on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

A.: The future of Syria must be in Syrian hands, and all Syrians must have a say. There cannot be a lasting peace in Syria until the legitimate grievances and aspirations of all components of the extremely diverse and complex Syrian society are addressed. Only an inclusive political transition agreed by the Syrian parties in the UN framework will allow a peaceful future in Syria, where all Syrians can feel at home and contribute to the rebirth of their country. The international community has the responsibility to contribute collectively to creating the space for dialog and reconciliation. Encouraging and accompanying the Syrians along the difficult and painful way out of a terrible war. This will require political pressure and the use of the right incentives. The European Union is strongly and actively supporting the UN-led political process and by engaging the regional actors under the EU regional initiative to support the future of Syria. We believe this is the moment of truth. No regional or even global power has the strength to solve the most complex and the most violent conflict of our times alone, nor to guarantee the adequate political, economic and security resources to ‘win the peace’ and have a real reconciliation and reconstruction process as the basis for a future democratic Syria. No one can afford war to continue, as no one can afford the post conflict Syria to turn into another failed state, a black hole of protracted conflictuality where terrorist organizations could still find breathing space. We do have a common interest, and a common responsibility, to put an end to this war and support a peaceful democratic future for Syria. This will be an essential part of our talks in Moscow.

Q.: As to the settlement in eastern Ukraine, the EU prioritises the complete fulfillment of the Minsk agreements. Do you think that Kyiv is fulfilling its part of the job?

A.: All parties must play their part in implementing fully the Minsk agreements. What is needed urgently is more political will in order to take the very first steps: full respect for the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons, to improve the security situation. I cannot stress enough that this is urgent. Only yesterday, a member of the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission was tragically killed by a mine, with others also injured. This is yet another life lost, adding to the many the conflict has already taken. We expect it to be thoroughly investigated. The OSCE mission must be given full and unimpeded access in order to be able to credibly verify any improvement of the security situation, which is crucial for there to be progress towards peace. There is also a fundamental humanitarian duty to reduce the devastation and suffering of civilians affected by the conflict. This would also pave the way for the complete implementation of the Minsk agreements.