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27 February, 2015

“Given the divisions within the EU, it is good that sanctions have been installed”

Polish Member of the European Parliament who actively contributed to bringing his country to the European Union in the 1990s, speaks about political divisions in the EU, the change of European attitude towards Ukraine and Russia today over the past year, and about arguments the EU expects from Kyiv to continue its support for Ukraine

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

U.W.: How united is the EU in terms of sanctioning Russia now as compared to spring, when the military tension began to escalate?

The targeted sanctions introduced against Russia by the EU in July 2014 in the financial, armament and energy sectors have made a difference and have had an impact on Russia. That has been the EU's most effective response to the war in Eastern Ukraine since spring 2014. Could the restrictive measures have gone further? I believe they could and also should have been introduced earlier, as we have been witnessing a continuous escalation of the Russian invasion on Ukraine. We have called on EU member-states for further sanctions in case Russia does not fulfil the commitments of the September Minsk Agreements in our European Parliament Resolutions in September 2014 and January 2015. But the EU lacks unity on this matter and given the divisions within the EU, it is good that these sanctions have been installed and will last unchanged at least until July 2015.

The current situation in Eastern Ukraine, with the shelling of Mariupol and Russia’s obvious engagement in supplying troops and weaponry to Russia-led terrorists, calls for more sanctions - according to the principle “more sanctions for more war”. Those should include serious sanctions such as e.g. excluding Russia from the SWIFT financial information system.

U.W.: Where do these divisions between member-states you mentioned run today?

No simple East-West or North-South division can be made here. Member-states are mostly grouped according to the different approaches and policies towards Russia and Ukraine. One group includes the Baltic States, Sweden and Poland – countries that strongly support Ukraine’s European choice. Another group includes countries that want to avoid any confrontation with Russia - Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Some member-states, like Cyprus, Greece, Austria, are traditionally friendly with Russia rather than Ukraine, while the attitude of others, such as Bulgaria and Romania, depends on the political force currently in power, left always flirting with Moscow. There are also those that like Portugal or Spain, are not too preoccupied with the developments in Eastern Europe, which for them seems too distant. Some countries like Italy, France or Germany and Great Britain have big business, financial and investment interests in or with Russia that they do not want to jeopardize, so that also influences their response and willingness to take decisive steps against the aggressor-state Russia.

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U.W.: As a long-time European Parliament member, can you see any change in the overall attitude towards Russia, now that it has been almost a year since its invasion in Ukraine essentially began?

I see a considerable change in the European Parliament’s and the overall EU’s position. The EU’s belief and hope that Russia can go through a process of modernization and be brought closer to international and European standards of democracy and the rule of law, has proven to be false. Russia is no longer considered a rational partner, but rather an aggressor, a threat to European security, a violator of international law, and a country that has been undermining the Eastern Partnership Program - a flagship project of the EU’s foreign policy. So, it is not unfounded when I say that the European perception of Russia has fundamentally changed.

U.W.: There was an impression earlier that, if Russia complied with the Minsk Agreement, even if only formally, the EU would be willing to go back to normal relations with it, leaving the occupied part of Eastern Ukraine as a frozen conflict and forgetting about Crimea. How accurate is it?

It is obvious now that Russia never meant to stick to the Minsk Agreement (the interview was done before the latest round of Minsk meetings on February 11 – Ed.). Instead, it used it to buy time to better prepare itself for a further invasion of Ukraine. There were those in Europe who continuously believed in Russia’s sincerity because they were naïve or afraid of taking a stronger position, and thus pretending to believe in order to avoid confrontation. The Minsk Agreement gave some in the EU the illusion that a de-escalation of Russian military actions in Eastern Ukraine was possible.

The position of the EU on Crimea is clear. Its annexation has never been and never will be recognized or legalized, and sanctions will be maintained. The principle of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is unquestionable, no matter whether we are speaking about Crimea or Donbas. Legally, there is no difference between the status of these two parts of Ukraine. 

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U.W.: These “naïve” policymakers – how influential and numerous are they in the EU policymaking process? What arguments could persuade them to see the Russian threat for what it is, if anything?

The EU’s stance towards Russia has changed and the shift in opinions includes also those policymakers (except for the extreme left, extreme right and anti-Europeans within EU). Especially now when Russia’s direct involvement in the war has become so obvious. The problem is that the Russian perspective is still strong in the Western media. The Russian propaganda is often winning and needs to be fought with.

U.W.: Is Ukraine providing enough facts and arguments to the western media to counter Russia’s rhetoric? What could it do more to communicate its own perspective to European societies effectively?

Russia is winning the information war so far. That is why we the EP have called on the European Commission in our January European Parliament Resolution on Ukraine to prepare and establish a Russian-language TV channel that would be funded by the EU and would mainly aim at countering Russia’s propaganda. Ukraine on the other hand should also change its language of official statements and documents to a harsher tone that reflects the gravity of the situation. Ukraine expects the EU to use a straight language, but uses soft language itself. Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, in his latest communiqué uses the term “hostilities”, not “war”. But we should call a spade a spade - war should be called war, terrorism should be called terrorism, and invasion should be called invasion. Asking Russia to influence their own terrorist proxies in Donbas is counterproductive and harmful, because it confirms the Russian narrative of not being engaged and not being party to the war against Ukraine.

U.W.: Apart from the communication efforts, what else do you, as a long-time proactive supporter of Ukraine in this conflict expect from the country that could give you more arguments for further support?

Indeed, we would like to see Ukraine do more, actions rather than words. When, for example, we ask the EU to step up sanctions, we want to see Ukraine imposing also sanctions on Russia. When we in the European Parliament urge EU Member States to help Ukraine to develop its military capabilities to defend itself, we expect Ukraine to use its own regular army and weaponry on stock and not rely only on underequipped volunteer heroic battalions, When we ask the EU for more money and support for Ukraine in the reform process, we need to see progress and determination on Ukraine’s side in modernizing the country and eradicating systemic corruption, instead of delays and posturing.

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Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, born in 1948, is a Polish diplomat, Member of the European Parliament. He studied economy at the University of Lodz. In the early 1980s, he joined the Solidarność trade union movement, became deputy press-secretary at its Lodz branch and political board secretary at the Centre for Social and Professional Research of the Solidarność regional branch. He was Poland’s first Minister for European Integration from 1991 to 1996, an architect of Poland’s entrance to the EU and a negotiator on the process in 2000-2001. Since 2004, Mr. Saryusz-Wolski has been Member of the European Parliament (in the EPP faction) and a proactive participant of the processes linked to the European Neighbourhood Policy, particularly its east-European vector. From 2004 to 2007, Mr. Saryusz-Wolski served as President of the European Parliament. Since 2014, he has served as Vice President of the EPP foreign policy group. He took part in the drafting of many resolutions on Ukraine, Russia and ENP before the Vilnius summit in November 2013. From September, Mr. Saryusz-Wolski has been the EP’s permanent rapporteur on Ukraine. 

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