What unites Russia and EU is (much) more than what divides them

The Baltic Forum – Riga, September 12

I recall with a certain emotion when, in my quality of Foreign Affairs Minister of Italy, in 2002, I could attend an event that helped to make a step forward in the relations between the West and Russia. I’m referring to the historic handshake between President Putin and President Bush, under the auspices of the Italian Government of those days, which admitted Russia to be part of a NATO-Russia Council, thus breaking a cultural, historical, political and diplomatic wall. 

Much more than thirteen years have gone since that far-away 2002. It seems an entire historical period has gone, and unfortunately, today we see as the reestablishment of relations, of a strategic partnership are both in a complex, difficult, in some ways even frozen phase. I’m referring to the strategy that has resulted in the introduction of sanctions against Russia and, of course, to the Russian answer to Europe. 
If I go back to the origin of this crisis, namely the question of Ukraine, with the violent deposition of President Yanukovich, I think we should say that both sides – Ukraine and Russia – have made mistakes; but in my quality of European, of Italian citizen, coming from one of the founder countries of Europe, I am afraid I must say that errors have been made even by Europe. 

I also remember – I was then still Minister of Foreign Affairs – when in 2009 we celebrated the start of the so-called Eastern partnership, dedicated to Countries – such as the Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia –Europe had declared the intention of strengthening economic and political relations with; well, a failure of Europe dates back to that time, to the initial period of the Eastern partnership. And it’s a mistake that, speaking at that 2009 Summit, I had signaled. 

Let me better explain. There was the temptation, maybe the tendency, and in any case we gave the impression, that Europe had created – through the Eastern partnership – a new fast track to the future adhesion of partners to the European Union and maybe even to NATO membership. After many years of negotiations for enlargement, following the success of the 2004 and subsequent enlargements, we gave the impression of wanting to overcome rules, procedures, policies, everything that we call « the acquis » – which any candidate State must reach – while indicating a new “political” process of accelerated adhesion. Certainly this accelerated accession neither would nor should have ever been referred to as perspective. 

This primarily because there are procedures that all countries must respect. And secondly because, doing so, we gave the impression – and it’s an impression that surely did not correspond to the wishes of countries like Italy or France and Spain, which shared on this our same position – that this Eastern partnership was born and developed against Russia : not to cooperate but to counter. It appeared as a new containment policy that, extending to the future of NATO enlargement, certainly gave the impression the Europeans were not acting friendly toward Russia.

A few years later, at the time of the negotiations for the signing of the agreement on cooperation and partnership between Ukraine and the European Union, once again that agreement was presented– and, I admit, it was presented that way though it was not – as an alternative arrangement in any Ukraine’s ability to continue to work on the East with its main strategic partner, Russia. In other words, it gave the impression that for some EU countries (but not for the others) the real political choice was that Ukraine was faced with an alternative: either you choose the signature with Europe, or you choose the alliance with Russia. This alternative was wrong. I believe it is one of the causes of the crisis that followed, but today we have to analyse it calmly.

Then, and it’s recent history, we saw the annexation of Crimea, the clashes in the Eastern provinces of Ukraine, and -as I said- errors by all the parties involved, up to the Minsk accords, which today constitute at the same time an objective and a start, because they establish the basis for commitments that must be fully respected on both sides.

Italy’s position is known, and has been reiterated at the highest levels of the Italian Government. Italy accepted the sanctions policy against Russia for a duty of loyalty, in order to avoid splitting the unity of the European Union, and not because it was (or is) convinced that the way forward is that of economic sanctions, which, among other things, will damage some countries – first of all Italy -, much more than other EU countries.

Italy believes that a policy of re-engagement of Russia as a strategic partner is not only necessary, not only urgent, but even indispensable for some major themes of global geopolitics. And I’ll explain. Our world is going through global and globalized crisis that certainly we cannot solve if even the Russian Federation (and incidentally China) are not fully involved along with the West.

Those same people who had wanted the sanctions policy, our American friends, had to admit – with Obama’s theatrical gesture of thanksgiving to Putin – that without the positive commitment of the Russian Federation, the agreement that has blocked Iranian nuclear proliferation would have never arrived.

A great success for international diplomacy that would not be caught if this division between the West, Russia and – I want also to add – China, remained.

Russia has and could certainly have a much greater role in the Syrian issue, if the West wished to ask, because the strategic role and military presence of Russia in Syria are well known; where, unfortunately, we must admit, with the policy of the international community we are leaving Syria in the drama, terror, despair of millions and millions of refugees. I think the Russian and the Chinese vetoes may have been the result of their lack of involvement from the very beginning of the crisis, which could have brought much more significant results.

Let’s look to North Africa, to Egypt, where Russia has been able to consolidate a strong presence, providing also with assistance and training to the Egyptian institutions, precisely at a time when some Western countries (but, I want to emphasize, this does not apply to Italy, which increased its relationships) had begun to abandon the current Egyptian Government, with the consequence of a greater fragility in that country. Inter alia , however, Egypt is committed to an intensive support to the legitimate Government of Tobruk for the stabilization of Libya.

I think no one can deny how much more decisive a strong commitment of Russia in the UN Security Council would be, resulting in a more coordinated framework of solution for Libya, a country battered, divided, where the West thought they can do alone, while the Arab world is in its turn divided inside.

The necessary consequence of all this is that, even today, the Security Council is unable to find a way to a resolution that will promote political unity, support, but also launch a serious offensive against the enlargement, the expansion of Daesh cells, which now are occupying important cities in Libya.

All this will be impossible unless a strong involvement of major powers such as Russia will be definitely strengthened and relaunched any time soon.

More generally, I see the need for a revival of our engagement with Russia; it is necessary to recreate a strategic partnership in order to counter the challenge to global security and to fight against terrorism, which means cyberterrorism, the so-called cyber crime; which means economic terrorism, with the huge amount of funding that terrorism still suceeds in collecting through illegal trafficking; and, finally, pure and simple criminal terrorism, Daesh’s terrorism, which every day threatens to hit the heart of Europe, and in some case has already affected the European countries, and where – for reasons of convergence of interests – the Russian Federation has exactly our same interest in fighting terrorism before it reaches our homes.

I know that the Minsk accords must be implemented; I know that the administrative decentralization of certain regions of Eastern Ukraine must be completed and strengthened to a structure whose virtuous example we Italians have in Tyrol : the example of a really strong and advanced autonomy. I know that there are still investigations and doubts about many victims on each side. All of that is well known. I am equally well aware, in my experience, of the institutional concerns of our friends here in this region of the Baltic countries, countries that suffered during the Soviet period, countries which aim more to a defence and to a containment rather than to a re-engagement of Russia. I understand these feelings. But I believe that feelings of this kind may be partially mitigated, compensated, looking at an even stronger interest: the global interest, the interest to deal with problems that are common to all of us.

I believe this is the meaning of leadership that we expect, that my country expects, that -I think- many Europeans expect from the European Union, its institutions, the Governments of the European countries and also by the Government of the Russian Federation.

I believe that, rather than repeating mutual accusations, rather than risking falling back into a terrible logic of a new Cold War, it would be good to put on the table, as I tried to do quickly, subjects on which there is a converging interest: our interest as Europeans, your interest, Russian friends’interest, and the entire Western world’s interest, because America and Europe share a goal of global security which cannot be conflicting with the objectives of security which the Russian Federation pursues against drug trafficking or arms trafficking or in contrast to nuclear proliferation.

These are truly global objectives, because they are goals corresponding to the rules, the founding principles of the United Nations themselves.

I think today everyone must rethink the logic of confrontation and revive the logic of collaboration, being obviously ready to report when one or the other should let down a transparent sincere and loyal collaboration.

Thank you very much.
Franco Frattini

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