James Sherr, Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, who is now also a part-time senior associate at the Razumkov Center, is well known in the Ukrainian expert and governmental circles. He often visits this country, takes part in various roundtables and closed-door meetings which discuss Ukraine’s security and international polcy. Visiting Kyiv the other day, the British analyst granted an exclusive interview to The Day, which he began with assessing the situation in this country on the eve of the EU-Ukraine summit.
Mr. Sherr, you often visit Ukraine. What can you say about today’s situation in the country, and what trends do you see now?
“I think the authorities in Ukraine are at risk forgetting some of the elementary principles of statehood. I worry that they could put the state at risk. The personal principle has now achieved complete victory over the professional principle. It is becoming hard to find a single head of an important state structure who is a proper professional. The only quality that seems to matter is loyalty. The worse the situation gets in the country, the less concern there is with the national interest, the greater the domination of interests that are narrow, personal and often shameful.
“This is a new situation for Ukraine. Although many of Kuchma’s people were not exactly democrats, there were impressive gosudarstvenniki [an advocate of a strong state, Russ. – Ed.] amongst them. A number of them were also national patriots. They understood institutions, and they built them, in some cases from scratch. They also built up a corps of educated and motivated subordinates. Yushchenko brought to power a number of people who were European and democratic in their values and culture. But many of them were amateurish and undisciplined in their approach to administration and had no understanding of power. The comfort principle, not the professional principle usually dictated who would serve where. Yushchenko never understood: the people who can help you don’t love you; the people who love you can’t help you. But today for the first time the country is run by people who are neither democrats nor gosudarstvenniki. Some of them are not even competent. And this is no longer a secret to anyone.
“It is not as if most professionals support the political opposition! There are people of real stature about, but they are side-lined. In the second and third echelons of state structures, and amongst the younger generation, there are also a number of extremely competent people, but they have no influence and are increasingly demoralized.
“No less important is the fact that the opposition lacks cohesion, authority, a plan and real roots in society. Who does it represent apart from itself? Which constituency in the country feels represented or protected by them? Who has confidence that if, by some miracle they came to power, they would know what to do and actually do it? There is no exaggeration in saying that the absence of an effective opposition is a security problem. If the disaffection and anger of society spills over into violence and unrest, who will the authorities talk to? Will they face a movement or a mob?
“The background to these concerns is an increasingly difficult internal and external situation. Economic and geopolitical conditions are harsh and getting harsher.”
You know, some American ambassadors and Western politicians consider that Ukraine overestimates its place between EU and Russia. But head of the National Institute of Strategic Studies Andrii Yermolaiev has told in an interview to Den that Ukraine is underestimated and that is a main problem. What can you say about this?
“Mr. Yermolaiev’s article should give rise to a lot of reflection and thought. I sympathise with his irritation – not confined to him alone, of course – at the tendency of Western diplomats and experts (no doubt including myself) to ‘extensively and aggressively’ comment on Ukraine’s internal affairs. But we shouldn’t forget one important thing. EU integration is a process of harmonizing internal affairs. That’s what it is by definition and in fact. No country is obliged to enter this process. But if association is Ukraine’s immediate goal and membership the ultimate one, then it is inevitable that foreigners will comment on its internal affairs, it is legitimate that they do so, and it is also in Ukraine’s interests that these discussions take place. Russia is a different matter because its authorities do not aspire to EU membership and they increasingly describe the country in ‘civilizational’ terms as ‘distinctive’ and opposed to the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’ Well, let them. But Ukraine, in contrast, defines itself as a part of Europe and as a future EU member state. So the terms of discussion need to be different here, and no one should feel insulted.
“The second important issue is whether Ukraine is underestimated, as Yermolaiev maintains, or whether it overestimates itself, as former Ambassador Pifer suggests. I think it’s a false distinction. Ukraine’s potential was well recognized in the West, at least in the early-to-mid 1990s and then again after 2004. The problem has been the lack of determination to develop it. If the great potential of a weak country is not developed, it remains a weak country. To me, the significant question is not whether Europe ignores Ukraine’s potential but whether Ukraine does.
“Former Head of the Security and Defense Commission of the Verkhovna Rada, Heorhii Kriuchkov recently said that Ukrainians are still discussing the very same problems in the defense sphere that they discussed in 1999. That gets to the heart of the matter. That is what discourages the West, not some misconceived assessment of Ukraine’s potential. Only this week, I heard some prominent people say that Ukraine should first study how the West managed its national defenses and then make changes. Yet for 20 years, Ukraine has asked for such studies and received them. I have probably attended 40 seminars on these topics. When does communication, knowledge and the sharing of expertise turn into implementation? To be sure, there have been some impressive examples of implementation over the years, not least in the Ministry of Defense, RNBO and MZS. But they were always truncated and often reversed. Positive steps were usually counterbalanced by negative ones. Reform ran into difficulties the moment it threatened the comfort of prominent individuals, and it was always reversed when it threatened the prerogatives and the system of power. For much of the past 20 years, the principle has been the same: the personal interest prevails over the political interest, and the political interest prevails over the national interest. This is why Ukraine is where it is. And in saying this, I am not expressing a distinctly Western view. It’s a view held by most Ukrainians I talk to. Incidentally, virtually everything I have learned about Ukraine comes from Ukrainians.”
And what should be done before this summit in Brussels for it not to be disaster as some mass media in West suppose?
“Probably the summit will not be a disaster. I certainly hope not. But there will be no signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, and there will be no promises of a signature in November either. The EU has been direct and consistent. The Agreement will be signed when Ukraine demonstrates its determination to meet the EU’s conditions: an end to selective justice, a fair and proper electoral process, and the establishment of a lawful and stable business climate. On these points, there has been a complete impasse, a dialogue of the deaf.
“On the other hand, I think there could be some constructive discussions about energy at the summit. Ukraine’s energy independence and security is not only a Ukrainian interest, but a European interest, in fact a Western interest. This is not new, by the way. In the mid-1990s, some leading Western energy companies concluded that, with the right steps, Ukraine could overcome most of its dependencies within 7-10 years, and they presented their recommendations to President Kuchma. He shelved them. President Yushchenko did the same. And in 2010, President Yanukovych sacrificed real national interests in exchange for an ephemeral and largely artificial discount on the Russian gas price.
“So why is there more optimism today? What has changed? First, unconventional oil and gas technologies are already revolutionizing global energy markets. Parallel to these developments is the EU’s Third Energy Package, which is now imposing EU market rules on Gazprom and other external operators. In other words, the days when the EU felt intimidated by Russian energy suppliers are coming to an end. Second, Yanukovych knows that he has reached a deadlock with Russia, which has begun the construction of the South Stream pipeline (which bypasses Ukraine), is determined to acquire Ukraine’s gas transit system and storage facilities (on the model of its acquisition of Beltransgaz in 2011), and is equally determined to force Ukraine into the Custom’s Union. Third, and for these reasons, Ukraine finally seems serious about developing its indigenous energy resources – conventional and unconventional – and Shell, Chevron and Exxon have been invited in with this objective. So there is much to talk about. However, there is also much to worry about. There are predators in Ukraine’s energy market who care nothing for Ukraine’s national interest and could do profound damage to it.
“But whatever progress is achieved over energy, the Association Agreement is a separate matter, and no one in the EU confuses the one with the other.”
So, the main point is that Ukraine should show some signal that it will implement the commitments it has undertaken isn’t it?
“A signal is not enough. Ukraine must do real things. That is not to say it has to transform itself tomorrow. But it must change its direction. If it really wants Association with the EU (and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area that comes with it), it has to meet the conditions – willingly, honorably and consistently. These conditions are not difficult to meet if somebody wants to meet them. The same point applies to the energy sphere. An enormous amount depends on what happens to the energy companies that Ukraine has invited to develop its resources. If they find themselves harassed, undermined and defrauded, everyone will conclude that nothing has changed, and Ukraine will be left to fend for itself.”
Putin declared that the integration of Post-Soviet space is unstoppable, however much outsiders protest. Lilia Shevtsova considers that by this new conception, Moscow is openly declaring “We will hold back the West and its influence not only on our territory, but also in the post-Soviet countries”… Does the West have a plan for dealing with this type of Russia?
“There is nothing new in what Putin has said. First, it is a standard Russian rhetorical device to say that something which many people dispute is ‘indisputable’ and that something which many would stop is ‘unstoppable.’ Second, Putin has warned his countrymen many number of times over the past ten years that the enemy is at the gates. But this refrain has become more persistent and shrill since the Arab revolutions, the Russian presidential election campaign of 2012 and the emergence of the urban protest movement, which many in the Kremlin are trying to equate with the external enemy.
“But to answer your question, although the West is less divided about Russia than it once was, it doesn’t have an integrated policy, let alone a ‘plan,’ and I doubt if there will be one. Privately at least, most Western governments believe that nothing very positive will be achieved with Russia as long as the current people are in power. As I already mentioned over energy, there is increasing robustness in the EU about defending our interests. But there is also a widespread tendency to ignore Russia, particularly in the United States, which perceives that it has far bigger issues to worry about. Increasingly, the conventional wisdom is that Russia is unpleasant, overburdened by its own problems and in decline. I think this is a complacent perception because Russia is also a proud country, and proud countries in decline can do a lot of damage. More to the point, Russia is a clever, proud and declining country. There is a lot of ingenuity there. Russia’s business and political elites are less afraid of risk than their Western counterparts, they study their competitors and opponents thoroughly (even if they often misunderstand them), they have an eye for character flaws and weakness, they know how to cultivate people and how to bully, and they are well practiced in the asymmetrical approach.
“And that takes me back to Ukraine. Ukraine has a very long experience of Russia. By tradition, it maneuvres between East and West. Yanukovych knows how the Kremlin treats weak leaders. He plays rough in Moscow as he does at home. Ukraine’s key financial-industrial groups wish to avoid Moscow’s embrace, not because they are European in their values, but because in Ukraine they are big people and in a Russia-dominated union they will be little people. The Russian proposal to ‘merge’ Ukrnaftohaz with Gazprom on the basis of a 5 to 95 percent apportionment of shares sums it up well. The problem is that Ukraine’s policies and its mode of governance are now diminishing its room for maneuvre; whilst Russia, which feels strong today and fears weakness tomorrow, is increasingly determined to resolve its outstanding problems in post-Soviet space. If, God help us, there is internal unrest in Ukraine, it’s far from certain that Russia will have the wisdom to stay out of it.”
Some experts say that it would be better in autumn during the EU summit in Lithuania to sign the Association Agreement because this would help Ukraine, step by step, move closer to Europe. What do you think about this?
“It would have the opposite effect. It would vindicate the authorities and reward their defiance. It would make a mockery of EU conditionality and destroy the limited amount of influence that the EU has. It would destroy respect for the EU in Moscow and in other post-Soviet countries, who would see EU ‘conditions’ and ‘standards’ as nothing more than a mask for geopolitics. Yet what is most important and most perilous to forget, the Association Agreement would not be ratified under these conditions, either by the European Parliament or by most national parliaments. So it is an artificial question. If Ukraine wants an Association Agreement with the EU, it has to persuade member states of the EU, not a narrow circle of people, that it is a sincere, honorable and capable partner. Perhaps it can do that by November. Today it is possibly further away from that goal than at any time since it became an independent state.”