“An opinion poll in Russia shows that 60% of respondents are unhappy with Russia’s relations with the EU. On the one hand, there is an atmosphere of patriotism, centred on the leader, on the other hand, people’s moods are worsening because the sanctions Russia is experiencing are starting to have clear results,” said Ušackas.
An interview with the diplomat was conducted by journalist Edmundas Jakilaitis.
Mister Ušackas, how do you think Russians are currently reacting to the EU and US sanctions on Russia?
The Russians are surprised because no-one expected such decisive measures from the EU and the United States. The European Union is setting sanctions for a very important partner for the first time ever and the reason for this is very clear: behaviour that is completely incompatible with that of a responsible state on behalf of Russia.
The impact of the sanctions is clear because five of Russia’s largest state banks are severely limited in their access to financial flows, while Russia itself owes 600 billion US dollars and will need to borrow around 125 billion more at the end of the year. These are massive sums, which will have an impact on Russian growth and those involved in decision making.
It is far more difficult for the EU, a complex organisation, to react to Russia, which is governed by a small group of people? In Lithuania and other EU countries, this is seen as the EU being inactive, but you believe that in Russia this is seen as incredible severity?
There are three main actors – Moscow, Washington and Brussels. Brussels takes longer to make decisions because it needs to align the interests of 28 states, but when the decisions are made they are fulfilled 100 percent. This has an impact. Maybe the list of sanctions is shorter, but keeping in mind that the EU economy is ten times more bound to the Russian one than the American is, the sanctions are far more notable.
What sanctions are most feared in Russia?
First and foremost, the restrictions on financial flows. Secondly, technologies, because Russia gets over half of its budget from oil and gas, which require technologies from the US and EU for improvement and expansion.
Sanctions targeted at individuals are feared as well because they are uncomfortable and unpleasant, as the Russian economic and political elite is very much connected to Europe, where they have much property and keep much of their wealth. Many of the Russian elite’s families live in Europe and many businessmen and politicians live in between Europe and Russia.
There are unofficial announcements that even sanctions barring participation in sporting events are being considered. Are there any thoughts of the EU not participating in events held in Russia, such as the 2018 football world cup?
A variety of sanctions are being considered, but for them to have an impact, the EU alone is not enough, so we are coordinating our actions with the US, Canada, Australia and other states. I want to highlight that the sanctions for Russia are not a goal in itself, we do not wish to punish our partner. Quite the opposite, we respect our partner, but want them to respect our mutual neighbour, Ukraine, as well.
As far as I am aware, sanctions barring Russia from hosting the championship are being discussed.
I received a phone call today from a worried Interfax journalist who said that a decision has been made not to participate in the football championship as a sanction. I denied this, such decisions have not been made at this time, but there are various suggestions and discussions going on. Right now what is most important is to reach a ceasefire in Donbass, to prevent military forces and equipment from being brought from Russia to eastern Ukraine.
While being in Russia and interacting with businesspeople and regular citizens, do you notice people taking note of the price they pay for Putin’s policies toward Ukraine?
I’ve seen two sorts of reaction. On the one hand, there is a patriotic atmosphere, centred on the leader – a tradition in Russia. On the other hand, it is clear that both the sanctions Russia is experiencing and the worsening state of the Russian economy in general has an impact on people’s lives.
The budget is smaller, inflation has risen to 7.5-8 percent. People’s dissatisfaction is shown by a recent survey as well. Over 60 percent of Russians are unsatisfied with Russia’s relations with the EU. People are being inconvenienced and have no guarantees for tomorrow with their income and savings in banks.
During the summit in Wales, NATO leaders called Russia a threat, this is the first time this has happened since the end of the Cold War. How are you met when interacting with the Russian political elite and diplomats? As a representative of a hostile organization?
No, no-one calls me an enemy, though you can certainly feel a certain chill. I haven’t met a single person, except certain politicians of extreme leanings, who would feel comfortable about the current situation. This isn’t just about relations with Europe, but about the questions many Russian businesspeople, culture and art world representatives, as well as regular people have. They ask: “What is going on between two closely related Slavic nations?”
In reality there’s a war. Initially it was possible to obfuscate it, but now, with over 800 thousand Ukrainian citizens spread across Russia and telling of the cruelties and pains they have experienced, their criticisms of both Moscow and Kiev, it is hard to hide the real situation.
A ceasefire agreement has been signed, military action has been suspended, even though there still are occasional exchanges of fire. Does this mean the Kremlin is backing down? Is this due to the sanctions and can we start talking about a long and painful stabilisation process in eastern Ukraine?
We hope that Russia has learned its lessons and will work with the EU in stabilising the situation in Ukraine. On the other hand, we are carefully monitoring the real situation and Russian statements on the need to maintain influence in Ukraine – historically Russian area of influence. We are being realistic about it. First there is a need to fully end armed action in eastern Ukraine and create an environment that would permit security, stabilisation and a search for common interests, while helping Ukraine become an independent and self-sustaining state.