In the interview, Pranckevičius, 34, discusses challenges to the European project and how effectively Brussels can deal with crises in the international arena, where Realpolitik and the law of the jungle still reign supreme.
It doesn’t take a sharp observer to see that we live in turbulent times. The Ukraine conflict continues, Islamic State is upsetting situation in the Middle East, the Scots have just had a referendum on quitting the UK, there’s much talk about the revival of nationalism in Europe. What moods prevail in Brussels?
Moods are tense. Europe has never had to deal with so many crises at once, all around its borders. Essentially, both East and South Europe are on fire. The European Union, fresh out of one of the biggest economic and financial crises in its history, is only now finishing an institutional overhaul after the EP elections. The Russia-Ukraine is not the only threat to the European Union project, thought it has been and is arguably the greatest challenge. Other problems include Islamic State, the Ebola pandemic, unrest in Syria, Libya. There’s also instability in west Balkans. Today, four out of five [Balkan] states that are potential EU candidates are undergoing political crises, have dysfunctional parliaments and are facing destabilization.
How have these tensions affected the agenda in Brussels?
Faced with these crises, the EU was forced to react more efficiently and flexibly. Though the sanctioning of Russia might have seemed as an inert and overdue process from the outside, if you know the insides of the European Union and how long it takes to harmonize positions, this was actually pretty quick. Though, of course, one always wants it quicker and harder.
The rise of radical nationalism and euroscepticism within the EU has also helped mobilize dominant political powers. They act much more in concert today, something particularly in evidence in the European Parliament, where the conservatives, social democrats, liberals, greens and other mainstream groups act more uniformly today. They want to shift the momentum away from the radicals and defend the idea of united Europe.
Interestingly enough, anti-European factions have recently been voting and making decisions that are very much in tune with pro-Russian interests. What we are witnessing is the emergence of an anti-European, pro-Putinist coalition in the European Parliament, where those in the extreme right and extreme left seem to be acting in concert. Despite ideological differences, the two groups came together to try to block the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement ratification, unsuccessfully, and to voice opposition to the EU-Moldovan trade treaty or further EU integration. So today we can state identity between the fight against Europe and the campaign for Vladimir Putin‘s idea of the world.
The EU’s reaction to Russia’s actions in Crimea was somewhat delayed. Could the policy of compromise and coordination be our biggest handicap? This policy seems to work only in the EU’s internal dealings.
It’s a handicap and a strength at the same time. The European model of coexistence is unique in the world. The European Union is the first modern political union that wants to stick to the rule of law not just internally, but also in its external dealings. All the major world powers – China, the US, Russia – are using the law of the jungle to guide their foreign policies. Realpolitik, pragmatic interests and arguments of force reign supreme. Meanwhile the EU looks relatively vulnerable, naive and easily conned due to the fact that it is so transparent and predictable. We say in advance what we do, what we want, thus giving hostile forces a chance to torpedo our plans.
On the other hand, it is also our strength. The EU relies on the power of public institutions rather than coercion structures and projection of power. Our states are strong for their education, healthcare, common market institutions, their legal systems, protection of individual human rights. These are crucial building blocks of any European state. We live in a world that does not exist anywhere else. The EU gives outlines of a completely new world, one based on contractual relations. One which is guided by the principle “Trust, but verify”.
However, we often succumb to principles of Realpolitik ourselves. While the EU’s internal policies give it a façade of the rule of law, when it comes to the international arena, especially the Ukraine conflict, we are still forced to play by the law of the jungle.
I agree that, in the face of a conflict, propaganda offensives and aggression, one finds it hard to win with truth, argument and rules. But if we were to abandon our own standards, this would mean accepting Putin’s rules of the game. Even though it might at times seem that Europe and America are going through moments of weakness, while Putin is scoring tactical victories, in the long run this policy of aggression, blackmail and threats is doomed to strategic defeat. The dramatic and painful conflict in Ukraine notwithstanding, its people are convinced more than ever that the European way is the only way. People of Moldova, Georgia and other nations have abandoned trust in their big neighbour, Russia, overnight. Ironically, Putin’s aggression and actions served to advance the popularity of the EU and the European project more than its own efforts, if you will.
Popularity, unfortunately, is not what we need right now, if the EU is facing a war. What guarantees do we have that the Ukrainian conflict will not escalate again or that next time the EU will not be so slow to respond?
No one can give any guarantees in this world. One must be prepared for anything. We are dealing here with an actor who is often unpredictable and irrational. Russia’s overarching strategy is predictable enough, but its tactical steps are often a mystery even in the Kremlin. Russia keeps lying to us and its own people, changing tactics, it always keeps several options for action open, so there are no guarantees, no sincerity and certainly no confidence.
I think that the results achieved in the EU and NATO summits in Brussels and Wales are crucial. The EU and NATO states have been giving resolute guarantees about their territorial integrity and security. Vladimir Putin was unmistakeably shown the red card and that NATO territory is a no-touch zone. Yes, Russia keeps provoking, intimidating the Baltic states – recall the abduction of the Estonian security official or the Lithuanian ship detention – but it knows that direct aggression is a red line it cannot cross.
So sanctions achieved their goal?
The sanctions had a two-fold purpose. One is punishment for unacceptable behaviour. The other is prevention, an attempt to stop the aggressor from further action. The first purpose has been served in part. Russia feels consequences of the sanctions, we observe unrest and frustration among the oligarchs, capital is fleeing Russia, economic growth slowed down dramatically, something intensified by dropping oil prices. All this has brought Russia to the brink of an economic crisis.
As for the second purpose, deterrence, we have been less successful. It is difficult to discourage an actor who is ready to give up irrationally much in order to achieve a goal, one who does not have to be accountable to the public and can afford to mobilize extensive financial resources, does not have to fear elections and enjoys massive support due to extensive and aggressive propaganda.
On the other hand, partial deterrence has worked. One must not forget that the prospect of further sanctions has helped Ukraine hold presidential election last May. The German chancellor then made a clear link between the third sanctions package – targeted at particular economic sectors – and the election. The Kremlin was sent a message that if the election failed or Russia disrupted the vote, the third package would come into force the following day. Russia had backed down three weeks before the election. It allowed the vote to go on, even essentially accepted the results, to everyone’s great surprise, and today treats President Petro Poroshenko as a legitimate partner.
One can also argue that the third sanctions package discourage Russia from more military adventures in countries like Moldova. This might be temporary, there remains the danger that Russia might be planning to carve out a land corridor between Donbass and Crimea.
Why did Russia spend so much effort on a seemingly minor treaty between the EU and Ukraine?
I have been following the Ukraine epic closely over the last few years, I was part of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission and visited Ukraine several dozen times, we negotiated with former president Viktor Yanukovych over removing obstacles to the Association Agreement and releasing political prisoners. We witnessed Russia’s actions and their genesis from up close. The greatest threat to the Kremlin is a modern, prosperous and politically open Ukraine. If this country could live by European standards, this would present a dramatic precedent and threat to the survival of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This is why this seemingly simple treaty has come to mean so much for Putin. This is an existential struggle for the survival of Putin’s Russia, which directs its undivided rage and hostility to the Western civilization, calling it demoralized, rotten, weak and gutless. In fact, however, this is all just their desperate attempt to protect their power, money and the deeply corrupt system.
You said in an interview that the EU’s biggest challenge is that it’s in want for leadership, ideas and visions as well as outstanding political figures. Has anything changed over the last 12 months?
The problems did not go away. The Ukraine crisis has further highlighted the leadership vacuum in Europe and the Western world. Politicians are elected in direct vote to represent people’s ideas and interests, but also to lead one step ahead of the society, to shape policies and outline future directions. Very often, however, they run behind the news, public opinions and instincts, reacting rather than building something new. In this respect, Putin has an advantage. He is not burdened by the election stress, he can stay in power for another decade. He has time to implement his plans. Therefore the current strategic pause is meant to divert attention away from Ukraine, exhaust the EU over its sanctions, make the EU blink and back down. Putin knows only too well that in the West we have less strategic patience, that our attention span is limited and subject to relentless news cycles.
With all that in mind, what is in store for us?
Troubled times. The Ukraine conflict will have massive geopolitical implications for the entire world order. Fundamental international legal rules have been broken. It might also be the start of a prolonged and exhausting ideological confrontation. There are signs that Russia is building a coalition against the world of liberal democracy and free market in order to preserve its regime. There is realistic chance that, after Ukraine, the next point of instability might be the Balkans. The aim is to show that Europe is unable to clean up even in its own back yard. Moscow is also conducting strategic talks with China, India, Brasil, Argentina and other BRICS nations, in an effort to counterbalance the US- and EU-led democratic world. It is still hard to tell whether Russia will succeed. But the fact is that they are obviously making effort. And we find ourselves in the epicentre of these efforts, therefore we must do all we can to defend ideas of democracy, freedom and unity in Europe, since our own survival depends on them.