RD Interview: Russia’s permanent representative to the EU, Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov, comments on Russia’s attempts to improve relations with its European partners.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, ahead of the Senior Officials Meetings of the Northern Dimension conference in Brussels in 2013. From right: Iceland's Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphéðinsson, Russia's EU Envoy Vladimir Chizhov and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. Photo: RIA Novosti

Against the backdrop of economic sanctions, Russia and the EU continue to look for new ways out of the current crisis in Russia-EU relations. In the interview below, Russia’s permanent representative to the European Union, Ambassador Vladimir Chizhov, explains what needs to happen before any real improvement in Russia-EU relations is possible.

First, the idea that Europe should normalize relations with Russia needs to gain support within Europe. Secondly, both sides need to take inventory of the presently frozen bilateral cooperation mechanisms, to see which ones are worth keeping. Thirdly, the two sides need to agree on real, pragmatic results that can be achieved in areas such as energy or counter-terrorism.

While sanctions imposed by the EU are up to its members to solve, Chizhov says, Russia is open to cooperation with political forces in Europe, whether they are rightist, leftist or centrist.

Russia Direct: It has been said a number of times both at the senior Russian level (including by you), and at the senior EU level, that there would be no return to business as usual in the relationship between Russia and the EU. But it is not quite clear what kinds of new ideas are emerging on both sides as models of a future relationship.

Vladimir Chizhov: Sadly, it is one of the few issues where our positions coincide today: that the return to "business as usual" would be both unrealistic and useless. In order to understand what we have today and what we are going to have tomorrow, I suggest turning back to see what we had yesterday. We had an elaborate system of coordination based on the still active Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed in 1994. But it turns out that our strategic partnership has not survived the test of events that took place – first of all, the Ukraine crisis.

Ambassador Vladimir ChizhovI cannot say that the Ukraine crisis was a fundamental reason for the problems between Russia and the EU – there had been many problems before that. A whole number of negotiations had been stalled – the talks on visa-free travel to name just one. Very often good political impulses from the top got stuck at the bureaucratic level. The Ukraine crisis was a catalyst rather than the reason for the current abnormal relations.

What kind of relations do we have today? Many channels of cooperation are frozen. That is the case with the negotiations on the new Basic Agreement, on the visa-free regime. The energy dialogue is frozen, as well as more than a dozen of other sectoral dialogues. What is not frozen? The political dialogue goes on, albeit in various informal ways.

RD: And what does it mean that the political dialogue goes on?

V.C.: For example, in May we had a meeting of political directors in Moscow. On the Russian side, it was Deputy Foreign Minister Alexey Meshkov and on the EU side, Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs of the European External Action Service, Helga Schmid. She also met with other Russian Foreign Ministry officials.  Mr. Meshkov and Ms. Schmid discussed bilateral relations, stating their current unfortunate situation. But they also addressed cooperation on international issues. There, the situation looks much better. Together with the European Union, we achieved a historic result at the Iran nuclear talks. We cooperate on Syria – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini are members of the International Syria Support Group. We are in good contact on the Middle East settlement – Russia and the EU constitute the more active half of the Middle East Quartet. We maintain consultations on the Balkans, on the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

Another important part is the dialogue on counter-terrorism. We have a new Deputy Foreign Minister on counter-terrorism issues, Oleg Syromolotov. His trip to Brussels had been several times postponed and ultimately we agreed to hold it on April 1. But just a week before that, the well-known terrorist acts took place in Brussels. This made our dialogue increasingly relevant and substantive. Mr. Syromolotov’s visit went well, and this dialogue will continue. We also go on, not as actively, though, with the dialogue on migration.

Read Russia Direct Report: "Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria campaign and the global fight against extremism"

To sum up, the institutionalized dialogues are largely inactive. The Permanent Partnership Council at the level of of the heads of the respective foreign services – has not met for a long time. In fact, Sergey Lavrov and Federica Mogherini met six times last year, including once in Brussels, but these meetings usually took place on the sidelines of other events. Yet the Council as such, which is supposed to give the necessary political impetus to the partnership, met for the last time in November 2011 – long before the Maidan coup in Kiev.

RD: So, what kind of ideas do you have for the future of the Russia-EU relationship?

V.C.: The main idea is pretty simple: we want a more pragmatic, result-oriented partnership. Fewer words and more deeds. How to achieve that? We offered the EU to examine all the structures that we had – to see which of them are useful, which are superfluous. We agreed to carry out such an inventory – first on each side separately, then together. Russia has done its work. On the EU side it is not over yet, perhaps because of the difficulties of internal coordination between EU structures and member states. So, we have not moved to the phase two, but hope to do it soon.

In our country, more than half of the ministries and agencies are involved in cooperation with the EU. We have just had consultations on aviation security where the Russian Aviation Agency participated from our side. Everybody understands that it is important and useful.

RD: What about the five principles that Ms. Mogherini proclaimed in March? Do they have any consequences? Do they indicate a positive or a negative trend in the EU-Russia relationship?

V.C.: I have a feeling that Russia and the EU view these five principles in different ways. We see them quite critically, including the key principle on "selective engagement" which gives a strong impression of a one-sided approach. In contrast, they regard this principle in positive terms - that selective engagement is better than no engagement at all.

One can talk indefinitely on whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. It is a position which has been formulated by Federica Mogherini and approved by all 28 member states. The paradox here, especially in the context of the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions, is that the European Union is going through a difficult period. I will not name all the wounds of today’s Europe, but there are problems such as migration, Brexit, the unfinished Eurozone crisis and the Greek debt drama. Around these problems, especially on the issue of migration, there are obvious contradictions among member states. And one can understand their desire to demonstrate unity at least on something. It is another issue whether Russia fits well into this desire to show European unity. But when the unity of the 28 member states becomes a goal in itself, it always happens at the expense of the quality of the common position. It is actually about the lowest common denominator.

RD: As far as I remember, even long before the Ukraine crisis, whenever it came to discussing Europe, Russia turned out to be a convenient other, in juxtaposition to the European Union. Can something be done about this philosophical problem of the Russia-EU relationship? Or should one just live with it?

V.C.: Russia is indeed one of the few self-sufficient countries in the world. Not just in military terms, but in the political sense and, what is most important, in terms of ideas and self-understanding. I would dare to say that there are no other such countries in Europe. One can count among them the United States, China, India, but none in Europe. European integration has always, from the outset, had the effect of watering down national identities.

The European project emerged from the desire to exclude the possibility of a major new European conflict. Looking at the European history of the last several centuries, it was clear that any major conflict involved the French and the Germans, even long before Germany became a unified state. So, the founding fathers concluded that the most effective thing to do would be to take the means of conducting war away from them. Taking away the cannons and tanks wouldn’t have made sense – they would have built new ones. So, they decided to take away the original means of war – coal and steel. All those European values, not to mention LGBT rights, turned up much later. It all began with very pragmatic things.

RD: Can this pragmatic approach be applied to Russia-EU relations?

V.C.: I hope that our relations in the future will be more pragmatic, and maybe more productive. When discussing a new infrastructure project, such as Nord Stream II, people will think about interests and not artificial ideological concepts such as the presumably excessive dependence on Russian energy supplies.

RD: Since you have mentioned the Nord Stream II, where does the project stand today, from your viewpoint?

V.C.: Well, my viewpoint is somewhat distanced – it’s a commercial project. The initiative came not from the Russian government, and not even from Gazprom, but from a group of European energy companies. Having seen what was happening to South Stream and how unreliable the Ukraine transit was, having calculated the increasing European demand for Russian gas, they decided to follow the existing route and expand Nord Stream.

At the same time, they realized that this project is less vulnerable to the effects of the often artificial European regulations such as the Third Energy Package [The EU’s Third Energy Package creates the legislative basis for an internal gas and electricity market in the EU – Editor’s Note]. South Stream presumed a pipeline through the territories of several European countries.

Nord Stream II is, in legal terms, a bilateral Russian-German project, because it will feed into the existing German distribution network. It is international only in a commercial sense – with participation of several countries’ firms. So, the initiators of the project thought they would have no problem with the Third Energy Package. Far from it! Opponents immediately turned up, who do not conceal their political motives.

The first of these motives is the following: What is going to happen to Ukraine? Nobody on the Russian side, neither the government, nor Gazprom, nor anyone else has officially said that the Ukraine transit will be stopped. Gas goes through Ukraine to other countries, such as Moldova, which does not have another pipeline. Other opponents are saying: how come 80 percent of Russian natural gas will be going through one country, Germany? As if anybody cared when until recently 80 percent was going through Ukraine. Is Germany a less reliable country?

RD: But another widespread opinion is that pipelines belong to the past - that the gas market is reorienting to spot sales of LNG. Nord Stream I is not being used to its full capacity, while Europe is decreasing its dependency on Russian gas.

V.C.: According to many experts, on the European market LNG cannot compete with pipeline gas in the foreseeable future. I understand that countries like Japan, for example, can be supplied only with LNG. The same is true with South Korea – only with LNG. Europe has several LNG terminals and regasification plants, but this gas is by definition more expensive.

What is remarkable here is that the system of gas pipelines in Europe emerged not today, not yesterday, but at the peak of the Cold War at the turn of the 1970s. Yes, back then there were artificial obstacles, there were sanctions introduced by the then U.S. Administration of Ronald Reagan. But Western European leaders of the time demonstrated political wisdom and courage to reject the quite strong American pressure and bring these projects to final completion.

Also read: "Russia and NATO: The return of the Cold War model of confrontation"

RD: How long do you think the current crisis in Russia-EU relations is going to last?

V.C.: It’s a difficult question, because the current crisis has many levels. The necessity to normalize relations with Russia is gaining more and more supporters. There was a vote in the French Parliament and in the Italian province of Veneto; there is a sober-thinking minority in the European Parliament. I am waiting for the critical mass to be accumulated. It is hard to predict when it is going to happen, but we are talking about not so distant future.

What may happen is restoration of a normal relationship, including the relaunch of negotiations mechanisms such as those sectoral dialogues which both parties consider expedient.

As far as the sanctions are concerned, we don’t discuss them with the European Union. It is a problem of their making. They created it using an artificial pretext, under pressure from the United States. It is up to them to solve it. When they manage to solve it, they know where to find us.

RD: One can often hear today that Russia is attempting to undermine the European Union by supporting the radical right and radical left, spreading its propaganda and operating in a destructive way regarding Europe.

V.C.: The spread of panic in Europe regarding Russia causes my deep regret. Why would that be in Russia’s interests to have the European Union disintegrated? Why? Do we need angry and hostile neighbors? No. We are ready to cooperate, but in such a way that our legitimate interests be taken into account. As far as the left and right are concerned, it bears witness to the fact that we construct our policy not on the basis of some abstract ideological stereotypes, but we are open to cooperate with those who want to cooperate with us, those who enjoy support of sizeable segments of European public opinion  – whether they are right wing, left wing, centrists or all together.