Pavlo Klimkin became Minister of Foreign Affairs during one of the most difficult periods for Ukraine - when Russia annexed the Crimea and started war in the Donbass. He worked in his post for five years (in the government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Volodymyr Groysman) and left the MFA only after the election of new president.
In an interview with OstroV, Pavlo Klimkin told about how the Minsk Agreements were created, why Russia requires the withdrawal of troops in Zolote and Petrovske and what can be expected from the upcoming meeting in the Normandy format.
- How do you comment on the decision of Denmark to build Nord Stream-2? Was it predictable?
- This decision was predictable and, of course, it is very bad for Ukraine. The EU has had quite intensive consultations on this subject, and now they consider any development of events in Ukraine to be possible.
- What do you mean?
- Political destabilization, possible movements in the context of transit security, war with Russia, possible elements of federalization. I have had many different meetings with European politicians and experts recently, and I am quite worried that talks about some form of fragmentation of Ukraine no longer scares away, - this is a completely new trend. There are people who are really starting to model it, evaluate some risks and consequences. Please note that this decision (of Denmark, - OstroV) was made two months before the completion of our contracts, that is, it puts us in an extremely difficult position at the last and most difficult stage of negotiations (with the Russian Federation, - OstroV). Issues that relate to security and energy are tied and spin in one solitaire for Russia and Putin. Therefore, this decision disturbs me diplomatically and, in fact, – this is a very negative decision for Ukraine.
- Was it the decision of the EU or Denmark?
- This is the decision of Denmark, but such decisions are not taken without consultations with the EU.
- Is this decision connected with what is happening in Ukraine now?
- Among other things. The EU now does not have a picture of what will happen next in Ukraine, what political movements will be. There is quite a large stratum of people in the EU, who would like to solve the problem of Donbass at our expense. Or, at least partially at our expense.
At the last international conferences where I was, representatives of the German and French Foreign Ministries (and not only) asked a lot how I assess the potential for development of the internal situation, emotional potential, conditionally different influence groups within the country. Therefore, what I see is the beginning of conversation about the possibility of any options in Ukraine, and this worries me very much. Denmark's decision on Nord Stream-2 is also connected with it.
- Is this new trend in the EU somehow connected with the policy of Volodymyr Zelensky?
- They do not understand what will happen next, what is the strategy, what are the frameworks, where will the efforts in the Donbass lead, how far Zelensky is ready to go. They see very well that there are positive elements in the current situation on the one hand, – this is the support of the population and situational unification of the country around Zelensky. On the other hand, the EU understands that now everything is focused on one person and everything depends on his decisions and his intuition (and many political decisions are made on a mixture of information and intuition). But they do not know how much information comes to him, how much he is able to understand the situation in detail. Therefore, they believe that now any options are possible.
This does not mean that they left us, but they began to plan risks for all cases of the situation's development. I would very carefully look at what to do now, because this (the construction of Nord Stream 2, - OstroV) is a landmark decision that will mean a lot for Ukraine in the future.
- What does this mean for the Ukrainian gas pipeline system (GPS)?
- I think that it is in the EU's interests to preserve our gas pipeline system, including as additional insurance for gas supplies, as insurance in relations with the Russian Federation and as insurance in case of problems with liquefied gas. I think that our GPS will function. These can be different options: for example, a situational sequence of contracts; it can be a purchase of gas at the border (if we are visited by a consortium with which negotiations are being held, which includes five gas transmission operators of the EU countries); it may be an opportunity to guarantee us a certain amount, but everything will go up for auction from above and this will be an element of competition with other gas pipelines… Or maybe, there will be no transit at all, and then we should ask the EU countries for some special funds for additional construction of interconnectors in Ukraine and 100% gas supply.
Naturally, transit is a big issue for us, but the budget will not collapse without it, rather, it will be a crazy blow to it, to the GPS, to workplaces. Most importantly - if transit stops, the question arises, what restrictions do Putin and the Russian establishment have not to launch large-scale military or hybrid operations against Ukraine? That is, there is a very strong security factor. Europe understands this and it seems to me that it will act with caution. But Denmark's decision means that the EU is likely to take control of the situation.
- Recently, Vladimir Putin called on Naftogaz and Gazprom to zero all legal claims in the gas dispute. Do you think this is real?
- Is such a decision possible in a political sense on the part of Ukraine? The question is rhetorical. Is this possible legally? This is not possible inside our legal system. For this, it is necessary to abandon the victory of Ukraine in the Stockholm court at the state level. Who is capable of doing, - this is hard to say even for me. This should be a political decision within Ukraine, which should be implemented legally and communicated to the society. But it is unlikely that the society will accept this.
Russia has always taken such a position (to zero judicial claims, - OstroV). When I was still the head of the delegation in the trilateral gas negotiations, Novak (Minister of Energy of the Russian Federation Alexander Novak, - OstroV) and Miller (head of Gazprom Alexey Miller, - OstroV) constantly said that we need to understand "how the commitments are being balanced" – this is their favorite phrase. I think that Russia will continue to play with this, it is ready for any things – new gas wars and so on.
- Is Russia really so afraid of this trial in the gas case?
- Of course, it is afraid. Any decision of the Stockholm arbitration is implemented through the decisions of the so-called New York Convention, according to which it is possible to file a suit with the relevant courts, which Naftogaz is doing now. For example, this is the seizure of Gazprom's assets, which is unpleasant, - or the issue of bonds by Gazprom is now under threat for the same reasons.
Now everyone likes to analyze the famous night in Minsk, but in addition to the text of the Set of Measures, there is also a statement by the leaders that everyone has forgotten. There was a phrase that we need to work on resolving the gas issues. Now I understand that if the Normandy Four meeting takes place, gas issues will also become part of it. Thus, everything is tied.
"Someone in Hungary has the idea that it will be possible to somehow strengthen autonomy in case of fragmentation of Ukraine"
- Hungary has recently blocked the statement of NATO ambassadors for Ukraine. How do you comment on this?
- It was absolutely predictable. It can be assumed that the Hungarian system also has an element of mess, but I think it was a planned step - an agreement between Péter Szijjártó (Hungarian Foreign Minister, - OstroV) and Viktor Orbán (Hungarian Prime Minister, - OstroV ) to play different options for good and evil cops. From the very beginning, the Hungarians demanded to bring back the return of all rights (to ethnic Hungarians in Western Ukraine, - OstroV), which means a return to "point x", which was before all laws were passed.
This blockade (statements on NATO, - OstroV), in fact, has no meaning. Making concessions to the Hungarians based on the current situation also makes no sense. The Hungarian blockade in this case is purely symbolic, and is used by Orbán for two purposes: domestic political mobilization and dialogue with the EU and USA. Therefore, when he says that he cares only about the Hungarians who live in Transcarpathia… Yes, there are serious issues. Yes, indeed, the methods of studying the Ukrainian language are bad, and we made a lot of mistakes there. Yes, we did not find normal communication with the Hungarians… Although I believe that agreeing so that it is beneficial to everyone is possible, 100%. A compromise is possible if you sit down and talk about it. Is it necessary to make serious sacrifices and concessions for its sake? I believe not, especially in the face of threats to the territorial integrity.
- Do we have these threats?
- Yes, there are such threats. It is very important for us in such conditions that Transcarpathia is stable. This is a very difficult region, which mainly hinges on tourism, traveling abroad and smuggling, there is no other economy there.
In fact, this problem is politically concocted out of thin air, that is, it is used for completely different political purposes. But you can sit down and find a compromise 100%. Moreover, a compromise that will be beneficial to us, Hungary and Ukrainian Hungarians.
- But then Orbán will lose a policy tool…
- That is right. This is the problem, not that it cannot be solved. It is not necessary to put all these rules on our Hungarians, so that the Ukrainian language somehow interferes with their identity. It is necessary that they themselves strive for the Ukrainian language and create incentives. They are ready for this. Of course, there are radicals and those who receive Hungarian money and fulfill their goals. But most Hungarians come up and say that they are ready and it is important for them. That is, this problem is pure political manipulation, nothing more.
- Can the threat to territorial integrity from Hungary become real for us? After all, in 2014, Orbán already offered the Poles to divide Ukraine…
- I believe that there is such a threat. I think that someone in Hungary has the idea that it will be possible to somehow strengthen autonomy in case of fragmentation of Ukraine or even go further. Moreover, not only cultural, but also real autonomy. These ideas are being played with there. That is, they believe that it is difficult to join this territory, but it is possible to make a completely different level of autonomy when legally, it will be part of Ukraine, and in fact, – the territory of Hungary (business ties, cultural ties, and so on). That is the real problem. This is the minimum goal that some in Hungary have. But we also have leverages. For example, the further process of decentralization, and many other things. Only this needs to be dealt with.
"Minsk" is not agreements, but a kind of political logic"
- Let us move on to a topic closer to us – Donbass. Let us finally figure out what "Minsk" is and how these agreements were formed?
- "Minsk" was actually quite an emotional process, both politically and literally. As a result, there was a desire to come out with at least some kind of document. Our partners emphasized this: Angela Merkel and François Hollande. There was a super-complicated situation in the area of Debaltseve at that time, it was not clear to the end what would happen next. Therefore, it was decided (realizing that some things will work, and some will not) to take a basket and put all the main "wishes and desires" there. These "wishes and desires" were formulated so that the question of how they will be fulfilled is already resolved at further negotiations. Even at that time, I told the Germans and French that this can only be done if we later agree on the sequence of these steps. As a result, this "Minsk" appeared.
- That is, Ukraine was not originally going to follow "Minsk"?
- I am not saying that no one was going to fulfill it. But additional solutions are needed for its implementation. No one was going to follow the text of "Minsk" literally. It is unfeasible, because it contains "wishes and desires", and not mechanisms. We and Russia have a completely different vision of how to perform "Minsk", – opposite to a great extent. As a result of all these movements and the lack of guarantees, Steinmeier's proposal arose, which later became known as Steinmeier's formula. It has never been agreed upon by anyone. We discussed it at least three times, but it ended with nothing, because our and Russian visions of how it can be formulated and implemented are completely different.
The "Steinmeier formula" emerged as an element of guarantee and trust: if someone does everything related to security and holds normal elections, then elements of a special status arise. What particular elements – this is a matter of talk with those who will be chosen.
But there are things in Minsk that caused significant discussions from the very beginning. For example, I was against the inclusion of a clause on amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine. I told the Germans and French that, firstly, the Verkhovna Rada would never accept this; secondly, - this is the path to the Russian scenario. But then everyone said that this is the last element to be discussed after the elections.
On the whole, "Minsk" is a block where everyone wrote his/her "wishes and desires". The problem is not that we did not want to carry out Minsk, but that it cannot be fulfilled without an understandable plan, roadmap and guarantees.
- Why the responsibility of Russia was not recorded in the Minsk agreements?
- Because Russia will never by definition recognize this.
- Did our international partners understand that any agreement is impossible without determination of the parties?
- They wanted to at least somehow stabilize the situation at that moment. They understood that the implementation of this agreement was impossible, but everyone hoped that they would meet again later.
But "Minsk" has its own big pluses. Firstly, we bought time, and a lot of time. Secondly, Russia's failure to comply with "Minsk" generated support for the sanctions. Thirdly, we have stabilized the situation at the front. "Minsk" is not agreements, but a kind of political logic, and in this case, one should not expect from "Minsk" what cannot be expected.
- So, if Minsk does not solve the problem of Donbass and is not able to solve it, then what have we been doing for the previous five years? Petro Poroshenko told us for a long time that there is no alternative…
- At first, there was a logic of balancing military and diplomatic approaches, and I think that was right.
Then there was the logic of a simultaneous emphasis on not losing against the Russian military machine when it turned on and turning on the diplomatic context.
Then there was a logic to build, on the basis of negotiations, a simple, understandable plan that would gain consensus among the Ukrainian society and would involve the engagement of our partners.
There was a lot of talk about the peacekeepers, but the problem was not to bring several thousand peacekeepers, the problem was to get an international administration that would lead the Donbass through a very difficult transition period to normal elections. This administration may be different, but it should have conditionally civil and police components. This may be an operation from the UN or EU, but it is important that this is an understandable process.
It is obvious that it is impossible to come to an agreement with Russia without it having a definite influence on this international administration. I emphasize – not the Russian military, but a certain influence on the administration; not a veto, but namely the impact on the decision-making. You can talk about all this, these are difficult compromises, but these are compromises that do not follow within the framework of Russian logic. Because if you take Russian logic, the Donbass will remain under the control of Russia, where people have been preparing for this for the last 5 years.
Time does not play for Russia in this case, it is also part of our strategy. But it does not play for us as well, because the longer people read textbooks there, where Givi and Zakharchenko are "heroes", the more it gets into their heads along with Russian propaganda. Therefore, the international component would be for me some kind of compromise between our position, the Russian one and the position of our international partners.
- Did we just have no time to do this under the previous government?
- Yes, it took place, but at that time, Russia categorically fought it off.
- Why did not we leave "Minsk" and put the Russian Federation in front of a new political reality?
- Then we would lose the support of some of our partners, jeopardize sanctions and many other things. In fact, any decision logic is the same: at first, it is some kind of security under international control, then it is a return to usual life and preparation for the elections, which the international component holds (we ourselves simply will not organize the elections there). In addition, we need some kind of transitional period with temporary justice. There are many draft decisions, roadmaps that were negotiated with the UN and our partners, but the problem is that today, Putin has not made a political decision to give the Donbass on compromise terms. In the current situation, as I understand it, he will make decisions based on his political intuition. But the fact that Putin will raise rates on the Donbass and gas is 100%.
- How do we feel about the OSCE, if it does not see the Russian military in the Donbass, and Sajdik in Minsk sends out a letter approving the "Steinmeier formula" to five parties, and not three, legalizing the "DNR" and "LNR" that way?
- The OSCE is part of the Trilateral Contact Group, which moderates the discussions in Minsk. "Minsk" is not an official political format, but simply an element for interaction. Therefore, nothing can be legalized there.
The OSCE is in a very deep crisis: institutional, conceptual, in terms of resources. If you look at the budget of the SMM (Special Monitoring Mission – ed.), it is larger than the entire OSCE budget. The SMM is being funded by different countries, not the OSCE.
The OSCE can play the role of mediator: sometimes it plays better, sometimes worse, but do not expect more from the OSCE. It is not capable of taking any big steps, given the current situation - this is impossible.
- How are the negotiations being held in Minsk? Judging by the reports of the separatist media, representatives of the "DNR" and "LNR" are full members there.
- This is not true. A meeting of the Tripartite Contact Group takes place at first. Only Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE are represented there. Then there are meetings in working subgroups that have no status, here people from the occupied territories take part. This is necessary for contact, for making practical decisions, for example, on security, reconnaissance, control of shelling and, of course, the humanitarian ones.
- But the Russian Federation should be responsible for all this. Why do we communicate with others?
- We communicate, not negotiate. I see no problem in our communication on security and humanitarian issues. This does not mean recognition, but we are not negotiating with them about any formal things. One of the points of Russia is the following: this is your internal conflict, negotiate with them. But we are not negotiating with them, it has always been the alpha and omega of our position. But yes, we are talking with them about the exchange of hostages that have gone missing.
"There are rumors that some decisions on the Crimea will be an unofficial part of the compromises"
- If you say that "Minsk" is not agreements, how necessary is their implementation by Ukraine?
- It is not necessary. The main problem of our relations with Russia is not the Donbass. For me, peace is when we will sing a hymn in Donetsk and Sevastopol. In this case, we talk about the cessation of hostilities, possibility of achieving security conditions, including disarmament and border control, then we talk about returning to usual life. There may be a new "Minsk" or something else to resolve these issues, but logic will be the same. It just does not have to be Russian, so that Russian control does not remain there, so that we and the international community do this.
Russia should not remain there even indirectly – this is not a matter of compromise, we should not allow the Russian Federation to use the Donbass to gain full autonomy and launch process of federalization of Ukraine. The logic of Russia is quite simple – it wants to create a number of states around itself with limited sovereignty, and Moscow will strive for this. The Russian Federation will carry out the maximum pressure in the next few years.
- Do not you think that our new government, perhaps unconsciously, is now playing up in this to Moscow?
- Putin has now achieved partial success in Ukraine. We have a crazy polarization of the society that continues. We, neither society, nor politicum, have a common agenda.
- Did Putin achieve this success by setting conditions for the Normandy meeting?
- Including it.
- Do you understand why the Russian Federation requires the withdrawal of troops precisely in Zolote and Petrovske? What does this give to it?
- Russia was refusing to open a checkpoint in Zolote for at least three years, realizing that there are Russian positions and weapons on the other side. Why now and in Zolote? I believe that the goal is the crazy generation of emotions among the passionate part of the society, among veterans and volunteers, - and this is quite a conscious logic. Secondly, if you look at the map, this is a real deterioration in our tactical positions. In the future, if Putin wants to, he can then make military escapades, sabotage groups, and so on there. At the same time, he relieves tension from the troops controlled by the Russian Federation, because the situation there is largely catastrophic. And this (the troops' withdrawal - OstroV) does not work for us.
These are all complicated steps and the right of Zelensky as Supreme Commander-in-Chief to take them. But imagine if something does not work, a diversion takes place, one of our guys dies - this will have a crazy destabilizing effect for Ukraine.
- Do you know, or figure out, why Zelensky takes such a risk for the sake of meeting with Putin? What does he plan to conquer him with?
- I cannot speak for Zelensky, but it seems to me that he hopes to get some kind of result from a direct conversation with Putin. He hopes that he will get something more in a direct meeting. I do not see that Putin is ready to compromise only with respect to the Donbass.
- Do you admit that we will put an end to "Minsk" after this meeting and will look for other formats?
- I admit that this will be some kind of new reincarnation of Minsk. There are persistent rumors among the Western experts that some new text is being prepared for this summit, which will slightly change this logic. There are also rumors that some decisions on the Crimea will be an unofficial part of the compromises. There are rumors among the experts about the resumption of water supplies to the Crimea on Putin's terms. There are rumors among the experts that Putin, as maximum, demands a second referendum on the peninsula. There are so many different rumors, and they are being generated by the fact that our position is not clearly defined.
- For a long time, there was talks that Putin agreed to leave the Donbass in exchange for recognition of the Crimea. Is this true?
- I think that Putin is interested in Ukraine and Crimea, but not in Donbass. If he receives indirect control over Ukraine, guarantees of a neutral status and recognition of the Crimea, he will leave Donbass tomorrow morning.
- And without indirect control over Ukraine?
- I think no. He understands full well that any success of Ukraine in the future is the end of his Putin model in the Russian Federation.
I think that the bet in this whole game is Ukraine as such. It is not for nothing that Putin is handing out passports not only in the occupied Donbass, but in the controlled part too. In the future, they will try to unite the entire Donbass, expand autonomy, and continue to pressure the south. The south of Ukraine is a strategically important element for Russia that solves a lot of issues: control over the Black Sea, corridors to the Crimea and Transnistria, solution of the Transnistrian problem and its inclusion in new Novorossia. I believe that they will hammer the south very consistently. The most important thing we need to invest in today is stabilization and formation of Ukrainian identity in the south and east. I do not think that Putin will now go for a direct military operation, but he will constantly generate problems and destabilization there. If this is not enough, he will use the military component without hesitation - I am sure of that. This movement, the creation of mechanisms of tension in Ukrainian society – this is preparation for the next stage. This is not preparation for the Donbass, it does not interest him at all, he uses it only as a mean. This is preparation for the promotion of emotions, fragmentation of Ukraine. Many analysts in the West also think so.
- In your opinion, is the new government, which, in fact, helps Putin to promote these emotions, very tricky, or does it inadequately evaluate what is happening?
- I do not exclude that our government is cunning. But I warn everyone that it is not so simple to outwit Putin. Russia's intentions can be assessed differently, but neither the Russian Federation, nor Putin, or all the people we are fighting with should be underestimated. These are people who have gone through quite a difficult school and it just does not work to outwit them.
Interviewed by Serhiy Harmash and Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV