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David Lidington has delivered a speech on the situation in Ukraine at an event in Brussels hosted by Carnegie Europe.
Many thanks to Carnegie Europe for the chance to speak.
What I want to focus today is what I think is now without question one of the most serious crises that is facing Europe at any time since 1945. The pundits will argue about whether this is the gravest security crisis since the end of the Cold War or since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But what I think is clear from the decision of the leaders of France and Germany to engage in this shuttle diplomacy is that we are at a very grave situation now in Europe.
Yesterday, EU Foreign Ministers met in the Foreign Affairs Council to set out our next steps. For the third time in less than two months. And an indication of the seriousness with which every member state within the EU will approaches the issue of Russia.
And to see why that is the case, we only need to cast our minds back 12 months. It is exactly one year ago that over a hundred people died in the centre of Kyiv.
In Ukraine, they call them the ‘heavenly hundred’. A hundred people who died in the name of a movement: ‘Euromaidan’. Based around an ideal: that Ukraine could be free of tyranny. Free of corruption. And free to choose its own destiny.
Today I want to set out our view of events that followed the start of Euromaidan. I want to address two questions: how should the European Union view Russia? And, given this, what should underpin our approach to Russia and to Ukraine over the coming years?
EU VIEW OF RUSSIA
So first, how should the EU view Russia? Let’s start with the historical context.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Some called this one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century.
But I beg to differ. Hundreds of millions of people in East Europe and in Central Asia were freed from the totalitarian rule of the Soviet Communist Party. Dozens of countries regained their independence.
Over the last quarter of a century, Russia had moved towards integration into the international rules based system, and the international community in Europe and beyond made a concerted effort to help Russia through that democratic, rule of law transition.
We encouraged and we helped Russia to join the World Trade Organisation. Russia became part of the G8 and the G20. It joined the OSCE and the Council of Europe. The EU created Permanent Partnership Councils. And NATO created the NATO-Russia Council.
At the same time, economic links grew, with billions of roubles invested into – and by – Russian businesses. And millions of people – individual citizens - made personal connections across the old Iron Curtain, thanks in part to organisations such as the British Council.
All this was done with one aim in mind. We wanted Europe to build a strategic partnership with Russia.
What we have seen, and what we have seen vividly over the last year is that President Putin has moved away from this trajectory. He has decided to treat us as a strategic adversary rather than a strategic partner.
The Kremlin has torn up the global security rulebook. It has trampled over borders and used foreign populations as a pawn in a greater game, importing 19th century tactics in 21st century Europe.
Look at the record. Russia continues to interfere illegally in Georgia, most recently with the signature of additional treaties with the breakaway regions.
Russia has meddled in Moldovan elections, providing financial and other support to specific political parties.
Russia has kidnapped an Estonian official and imprisoned him illegally in Moscow.
Ukraine has been dismembered by the illegal annexation of Crimea. And it is now in a state of smouldering instability, thanks to the Kremlin’s puppet uprising in the Donbas.
And that against the background of a doctrine laid down in Moscow that Russia has the right to intervene anywhere it chooses if it can claim that that intervention is in support of Russian speakers or Russian citizens.
And we can count the cost of the Kremlin’s actions in the straightforward terms of human lives.
Not just the hundreds who lost their lives fighting for freedom in Euromaidan.
Nor the 298 innocent people downed in MH17.
But now more than 5,000 deaths in Ukraine. Tens of thousands injured. And more than one and a half million people forced to take refuge in other parts of Ukraine or in neighbouring countries.
And the situation is getting worse.
The level of violence is escalating, reaching levels not seen since last September. Just a few weeks ago, 30 civilians killed in Mariupol, by a Russian missile fired by separatists.
The separatists have destroyed Donetsk airport. They are threatening Debaltseve. We believe they have occupied more than 500 square kilometres of additional Ukrainian land since last September.
Now that is a tragedy. But it is not some accidental sequence of events. It is a deliberate, calculated policy of the Kremlin.
And need to recognise that we do not have a Ukraine crisis. We have a Russia crisis, of which Ukraine is the most acute manifestation.
Russia is responsible for creating the separatists – there was no significant movement a year ago for independence of the Donbas a year ago. The first ‘leader’, so called, of the Donetsk breakaway area was removed at the behest of Russia when it was found that he spent most of his time living in Moscow and not in the region that he purported to represent.
The separatists are not authentic expression of democratic opinion, they are instruments of Russian policy.
And Russia is responsible for arming them. T72-BM tanks, PKP machine guns, and Grad missiles – all from the Russian army’s stores.
Russia is responsible for training them. Camps have been set up on the Russian side of the border. Uniformed men cross in both directions, every day.
Russia is responsible for logistical support. Its intelligence forces man the command and control units. Its air defence provides a shield for the separatists.
And Russia is responsible for further threats. 8,000 troops are amassed on the border with Ukraine, acting to demoralise the people of Mariupol or Slaviansk.
Russia is responsible for undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty, sending in wave after wave of so called ‘humanitarian convoys’, without the agreement of Ukraine’s legitimate government.
And Russia is responsible for blocking a diplomatic solution. The commitments President Putin made under the Minsk agreement have never been further from the reality of Russia’s actions on the ground.
And it is that contrast between the words spoken in diplomatic exchanges and the activity on the ground in eastern Ukraine that has led, sadly, to deeper levels of mistrust in Europe and in the United Sates about the intentions of the Russian government.
And, most cynically of all, Russia denies all this. In the face of hard evidence – open-source, intelligence, eye-witness accounts, and international monitors – Russia says it has no hand in the conflict, accusing elected government in Kyiv instead of being the belligerent party.
With all of this in mind, it is clear that there can be no business as usual.
THE EU RESPONSE
So how then should the EU respond? I would suggest four key elements.
First, we must support the current diplomatic efforts.
There can be, in the end, no military solution to the crisis. President Poroshenko has been clear throughout that he wants peace, not war. So we have called on all parties to engage constructively with the legitimate, democratic Government of Ukraine. With two objectives: to de-escalate tensions, and to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
So the United Kingdom welcomes the intensive efforts by our German and French colleagues in recent days to engage President Putin.
The UK will continue to work with our European colleagues to help resolve the crisis and take an active part in the diplomatic process. In addition to the debate about sanctions (to which I will return in a moment), the Prime Minister maintains his own contacts with Presidents Poroshenko and Putin, as well with our EU partners, including Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande. At the G20 he made it clear to President Putin that Russia’s choice was simple: fulfil what he had agreed in Minsk or face further costs.
So what might a diplomatic solution look like? I don’t think it’s any great secret that it will need to involve a number of elements. A ceasefire, monitored internationally. Border monitoring of that key international frontier between Russia and Ukraine. Prisoner exchanges. Humanitarian access. Local elections. And, for the avoidance of any doubt, Ukraine remaining intact with its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
2) Pressure on Russia
Secondly, to support this engagement, we need to keep up the pressure on Russia. That means multilateral pressure, through the UN, OSCE and other organisations. It means diplomatic pressure through all the channels we have. But it also means economic pressure, through sanctions as part of a wider political strategy.
They are not an alternative to engagement. They complement and support our efforts to engage.
And those sanctions are having an impact on Russia. Growth fell last year from 2.1% to 0.2%, and the Russian economy is expected to shrink this year by as much as 5%. The Kremlin’s own actions, such as its food imports ban, are stoking inflation, passing costs on to ordinary Russian citizens.
Now, as we all know it is the oil price which has caused much of this economic turmoil. As has the Kremlin’s decision not to reform the Russian economy.
But sanctions are playing their part as well. Standard & Poor recognised this, when downgrading Russia’s credit status to junk last month.
I want to stress that our hope, our intention is not to cause long term problems for the Russian economy. But it is vital that the government in Moscow understands that its illegal and destabilising actions come with a cost.
I think the message to the Kremlin and the Russian people needs to be very clear. Sanctions can be lifted.
We can, as the European Union, together with our other allies, reverse this policy.
If Russia fulfils its responsibility in implementing fully the 12 points from Minsk, then we will need to look at easing sanctions.
But let me be clear, these sanctions can and should also be strengthened if Russia’s further actions provoke this.
Now until such a choice confronts us the EU must remain united and hold to its strategy. To do anything less would be condone Russian action. And then, my fear is that we would watch Russia use its tried, tested and successful tactics elsewhere in the European neighbourhood. So I think need to continue to respond collectively but with very firm resolve.
3) Support to Ukraine
The third pillar of our approach must be to support a successful Ukraine.
Ukraine’s people and government have taken an historic decision. They wish to build closer relations with the EU, and take charge of their own destiny. And they seek to uphold the territorial integrity of their country.
There is undoubtedly much to do. The Ukrainian government is trying – and must continue to try – to reach out to all Ukrainian citizens whatever part of the country they live in, whatever language they speak, so that they feel part of a new and better Ukraine.
Meanwhile, we – EU Member States – must support this.
So the UK strongly supports the work of the Commission’s Support Group for Ukraine that has identified four areas for reform: public administration, anti-corruption, justice and energy.
We are doing our bit bilaterally. British funds and technical assistance are flowing to support economic and governance reforms. This means combating corruption, and helping to attract further investment. And we are working with the Ukrainian government to help them address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the east and the challenge posed by very large numbers of displaced persons.
And we are also working alongside the Germans to help Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance reform its public financial management systems.
4) Get our communications right
So these three elements – diplomacy, pressure and support to Ukraine – are the bedrock of our response to the Russia/Ukraine crisis. But to that, I would add a fourth element.
Our work will not be effective if the Ukrainian people – and international publics – lose faith in the path that Ukraine has chosen. So we also need to respond to Russia’s actions by countering disinformation.
Russia has employed multiple well honed tactics of disinformation in the last few years. Tighter control over domestic media. New, aggressive, channels to confuse and disorient international publics. Armies of online trolls whose sole job seem to be to use fake evidence to litter social media, even at the time of MH17.
We need to counter this disinformation campaign – not with propaganda, but with the truth.
To that end, I would propose four elements that should govern the EU’s response. The four ‘A’s.
First, awareness. We need to make our own populations aware of the scale of Russia’s disinformation. This means greater cooperation between the EU and NATO. And exposing disinformation when it occurs.
Second, assertiveness. We must define a proactive, positive narrative for populations in the region; not just in Ukraine but in the neighbourhood as a whole. As Member States we should support and amplify each other’s messages.
Third, alternatives. The Kremlin has successfully limited free debate in Russia’s media space; we need to support independent and alternative voices. A key element of this is to help Ukraine’s own government communicate more effectively with its own people and with the international media. Ukraine’s voice must be heard abroad.
And finally, accountability. Where Russian propaganda outlets break our laws, they should be made accountable. And regulators throughout the EU should keep a watchful eye – always mindful of the importance of protecting free speech.
I’d conclude by saying this.
Despite everything that I have said that is critical of the Russian government, my country continues to have great respect for Russia as a nation. And in a matter of just some weeks’ time, we will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe and as part of that the horrendous suffering and sacrifice of the people of Russia at that time.
Russia is a great nation, with hugely talented people and boundless natural resources. It has the potential to be a powerful force for good in the global community.
But at the moment, I fear the Kremlin is squandering that potential. And, in doing so, it is destabilising one of the EU’s neighbours – a neighbour, Ukraine, that is seeking a brighter and more prosperous future through democratic means.
This May, the EU will hold an Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga. In parallel, the EU is reviewing its policy towards the Eastern neighbourhood.
Both of these events will take place in the context of Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine. And I have no doubt that that context will shape the outcome.
We would far rather avoid a path of confrontation with Russia. But the choice lies with the Kremlin. The current path it is taking can only lead to further international isolation and deeper economic gloom. Worst prospects for families throughout the Russian federation. The Kremlin should, even now, reconsider. A different course is in the interests of people throughout Europe, in Ukraine – and, not least, in Russia.