Is it Possible to Unfreeze the Russian Relations with the Western Countries? What Does it Mean for Ukraine?

One of the first panels at the 10th Forum Europe-Ukraine 2017 in Rzeszów was dedicated to the future of the relationship between the West and Russia. It began with an input by the German author and journalist Boris Reitschuster, who was interviewed by Boguslaw Chrabota, Chief Editor of the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. According to Boris Reitschuster, the interest in Ukraine among the German public is today „almost below zero”. The new US-administration, the political crisis in Turkey or the war in Syria gain much more attention. There are only very few supporters of an EU-accession of Ukraine, many Germans are not certain whether the Eastern Enlargement of the EU in 2004 can retrospectively be called a success. Therefore, further enlargements, including Ukraine or Turkey, are seen with much scepticism, Reitschuster explained. Most supporters of Ukraine can be found among politicians of the CDU and the Green party. Thus, both parties are possible targets of Ukrainian lobbying, he suggests. The German Social Democrats, on the other hand, take a much less clear stance towards the Russian aggression. The former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, is – according to Reitschuster – still very influential. The new minister of foreign affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, but also his predecessor Steinmeier, have still a close relation to the former head of the federal government. Reitschuster urges Ukraine to do its homework, because otherwise, its supporters are left with very weak arguments to defend their pro-Ukrainian position. Reitschuster is convinced that Russian influence in Germany is very strong. „Putin will do anything he can to get Angela Merkel out of the Chancellary”, Reitschuster finished his statement.

The following debate presented different perspectives on the question of whether it is possible to unfreeze the relations between Russia and the West. A majority of the speakers was supportive of this idea. At first, the moderator Mathieu Boulegue gave the floor to Boris Guseletov, representing a Russian voice in this discussion. Guseletov advocated an improvement of the relations by ending the sanctions against the Russian Federation. Guseletov called the claim that the sanctions should stay in place until the Minsk agreement is fully implemented a „dead-lock”. Instead, he claims that a new Helsinki conference is needed.

Oleksandr Chalyi from Ukraine, the second speaker, was more critical of the Russian role in the conflict. According to him, one can recognize a pattern of Russia looking for enemies to distract the attention from domestic problems: at first the USA, then Ukraine, later Turkey and now the EU.

Bartłomej Nowak from Poland stressed that everybody would like to have good relations with Russia, but in this question, the ball is clearly on the side of Russia and not on the side of the West. Today’s political situation is becoming more and more difficult, especially the new president of the United States, Donald Trump, is a not easily predictable factor. Ukraine cannot take transatlantic unity for granted anymore and also the EU is more and more divided. According to Nowak, if Putin will have a chance to destroy NATO, he will do it. Another difficulty for Ukraine is the lack of an EU-membership perspective for Ukraine. In the case of Poland the promise to join the EU was an important incentive for reform.

Markku Kangaspuro from Finland explained why his country voluntarily stays outside of the NATO. Finland believes that the balance of powers in the Baltic Sea, with Sweden and Finland not being members of NATO, helps maintaining peace. Kangaspuro sees no other solution than to unfreeze the relations between Russia and Europe. In his opinion, the global center of gravity has moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific theatre: „We have to settle out problems in Europe to be able to compete”. Kangaspuro is afraid that the project of an ever further European integration has failed and that the transatlantic security alliance doesn’t work anymore. The EU has become too large and fails to solve its own problems.

According to Arseni Sivtski from Minsk, Russia wants to be recognized as a world power with its own sphere of influence. Belarus and Ukraine, though, are independent countries and Belarus doesn’t see itself as a part of the Russian sphere of influence. This is, why Belarus supports Ukraine in its hybrid war with Russia and why it opposed the Russian intervention in Georgia 2008. Sivtski explained that recently, Russia announced to deploy a huge amount of troops in Belarus. The goal is to transform Belarus into a Russian military outpost. This means that Belarus might be the next strategic surprise of Putin.

Oleh Soskin from Ukraine provided the final commentary – a heartfelt and strong statement about the war between Russia and Ukraine, in which he quoted Newton’s third law of motion: „When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body”. If the West should forget this physical equation, Russia would only be encouraged to further pursue its aggressive policy.