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Picula: Putin counting on a divided West

Tonino Picula, Tonino Picula, a former Croatian Forign Minister, is “shadow rapporteur” for Ukraine in the European Parliament

Tonino Picula is “shadow rapporteur” for Ukraine as a member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. The former Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs, he has engaged with numerous multilateral organizations during his career and in recent years led OESS observers at elections in Moldova, Kazakhstan, Russia, Georgia and Armenia. Picula talked with RFE about different aspects of the Ukrainian crisis, divisions in the West, Putin’s plans and the influence of the Ukrainian crisis on countries in the region.

RFE: Both news from the field in Ukraine and messages from senior Ukrainian officials are becoming more dramatic. How do you evaluate the current situation in Ukraine?

Picula: It certainly isn’t good, and every day we hear that the situation continues to escalate. This, unfortunately, is confirmed by new victims and material destruction. At the same time, we hear there are ongoing diplomatic initiatives, politicians are holding meetings, but there is no true progress. This is a military, diplomatic and economic conflict, as well as an armed conflict coming after the short Russian-Georgian war of 2008. I believe that the conflict in Ukraine opens a completely new chapter for the functioning of the European Union and the one real holder of political power in the neighborhood, namely Putin’s Russia.

RFE: What are the Kremlin’s possible next steps and ultimate goals?

Picula: I think that Vladimir Putin, based on experience from Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, can in a way choose a model for pursuing his political interests. When it comes to Ukraine, I think he is counting on some sort of secession by eastern Ukrainian. It is hard to say whether that will come in the form of wider political autonomy or a sort of privileged position in their relationship with Kiev. But I know he is counting on a number of weaknesses in his political opponents – not only the notorious weakness of the Ukrainian central authorities, but also on a divided West at this point. Specifically, I think of Washington’s focus on the conflict in the Middle East, because the advances made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria are certainly an extremely serious challenge, given the fact that not only blood is at stake there. There’s also oil, and that is something that traditionally attracts Washington’s attention.

RFE: Even the EU member states are not united…

Picula: Putin is, of course, counting on divisions within the EU, because sanctions are something they have a hard time agreeing on, and there are always certain doubts whether they’re even needed at all. This latest announcement has already drawn open resistance from Slovenian Prime Minister Fic and Hungarian Prime Minister Orban. Despite the fact that they lead countries that hardly enjoy ideal relations, they are more prone to some sort of Putin authoritarianism than to democratically agree to an EU joint policy.

RFE: Does Putin have some sense of timing in his moves?

Picula: It seems to me that Putin is intentionally aggravating relations in and around Ukraine, counting on their possible effect on the elections in Ukraine scheduled for October. Of course, he doesn’t expect some pro-Russian faction to win, but he wants to stress how much Russia is interested in seeing those parliamentary elections result in support within the Verhovna Rada for the option of reaching an agreement with Moscow, given Kiev’s inability to militarily defeat the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

RFE: What is the economic aspect of the behavior of Moscow and the West? The ruble is decreasing in value in comparison to the dollar, and some analysts are predicting a collapse soon even though the Russian economy is reporting a slight recovery…

Picula: The economy always plays a role. If it isn’t the initial motive of a conflict, then political conflict certainly has consequences on national economies, international exchange and the living standards of the citizens in whose name the conflict is being waged. Of course I’m being a little ironic now! When it comes to sanctions – these are the third that should have some effect – I have already publicly asked: what sort of sanctions produce bigger economic or political damages: a ban on the import of European fruit and vegetables in Russia or the possible Russian halt to exporting energy to the European Union ahead of the winter heating season? We’re considering that in the European Union. The economic effects of the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia are not big, they’re only political. However, if Russia starts considering reducing the export of energy, things will become serious! And not so much for big EU members that can make purchases on third markets - Putin knows that this reduction would hit many smaller EU members harder, and even some countries that are not members but are aspiring to be, candidates such as Serbia or other countries that exclusively depend on the import of Russian gas and oil. That is why I think that the role of the economy is going to increase. In the end, in a few days we expect a new round of talks about gas in the presence of the EC Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger. Those negotiations were halted in June, but they will soon resume as if nothing dramatic is happening.

RFE: New people are at the helm of the European Union – Donald Tusk heads the European Council and we have a new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini. Tusk comes from the right-wing of the political spectrum, Mogherini the left-wing, and the media report that their stances towards the Ukrainian crisis differ. Will they be able to work together in such a situation?

Picula: Let’s give them time. They may be a good choice if they respect their differences, but above all if they respect the program that elected Mr. Juncker and who will be choosing his team in the coming days.

RFE: In your opinion, how long will Serbia be able to have its cake and eat it too – both claiming brotherhood and friendship with Russia and public dedication to a European path for Serbia?

Picula: That depends on the intensity of either of the two sides of Serbian foreign policy in the next weeks, considering the general developments in current relations. If relations between the West and Moscow continue to deteriorate, Serbia will have less and less maneuvering room for disloyalty in terms of a joint foreign and security policy justified by specific needs in Serbia such as energy dependence on Moscow. On the other hand there is its strong technological, financial and economic dependence on the European Union, i.e. the West. Whether there is a general convergence or divergence between Moscow and the West, it’s within that range that Serbia’s ambivalent foreign policy will move.

RFE: Russia’s behavior in this case – aside from endangering the sovereignty and integrity of neighboring, independent Ukraine – seriously questions the international political-legal order. Is the international community considering the negative consequences of Moscow’s behavior?

Picula: I believe that the mechanisms of the UN and the OESS – the OESS mechanism was created in the seventies and was modified in the nineties – are on their last legs. These global and regional organizations can only mediate some of the consequences of the conflict with their mechanisms, but the world needs a sort of global ‘New Deal’ that would truly prevent local and regional crises from becoming very serious global conflicts – conflicts with no winners, only losers.