On this week's Conflict Zone, Vladimir Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the EU, discusses the crisis in Ukraine, US missile defense and NATO expansion.
It's a difficult moment for Russian relations with the West. The crisis in Ukraine broke trust as both sides now make increasingly militarized moves. It’s bad enough these days that even the wording around diplomacy is up for debate.
"I wouldn't say it’s bad times for diplomacy," said Vladimir Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the EU, on DW's Conflict Zone. "I would rather put it as a challenging time for diplomacy." Continuing on, he said, it's challenging because, "diplomacy is a tool to straighten things out."
In conversation with Tim Sebastian, Chizhov sought to straighten things out by claiming that Russia did not invade Crimea, saying, "there was a Russian naval base in Crimea since the 18th century all along," that Russian fighters buzzing US warships in the Baltic was a sign of "high professionalism," and asserting that verbal promises were made in the 1990s that NATO would not expand.
The annexation of Crimea
Russia annexed Crimea two years ago and since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted sending troops into the region - though Russians had earlier denied having troops there. When asked about the discrepancy, Chizhov said, "the important part of this situation was that the Russian troops who were there actually didn’t fire shots."
Chizhov also dismissed the barrage of international criticism following the Crimean annexation, such as the United Nations vote not to formally recognize the change in status. Just 11 countries voted against the resolution, while 100 confirmed Ukrainian sovereignty. Chizhov also denied that use of force was involved, saying, "allegations of a Russian invasion of Crimea are totally wrong."
Tim Sebastian also noted that President Putin admitted to having troops on the ground in eastern Ukraine after many months of denial. "How can diplomacy work to this extent," asked Sebastian, "when you mislead the other side?"
Chizhov’s response was that world leaders should not dwell on the past. "We may disagree on ... the course of events but ... the reality on the ground should be the basis to look forward."
Discussing missile defense...
The tension growing between Russia and the West goes well beyond the conflict in Ukraine. Some issues date back to the end of the Cold War, a time when Chizhov insisted there were verbal assurances made that NATO would not expand. Chizhov admitted Russia had made mistakes in the past and said he believed Mikhail Gorbachev had not perceived an expansion "as realistic" in the early 1990s.
This, despite being confronted with Gorbachev’s own words: "The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all and it wasn’t brought up in those years, I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern-European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw-Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either."
The conversation between Tim Sebastian and Vladimir Chizhov took place just one day after the United States opened a missile defense installation in Romania. The site has been a point of contention for Russia, with the Kremlin arguing that the site represents a break in the long nuclear stalemate. The United States has held that the missile defense site serves as protection from Iran.
"Why would NATO or the Unites States see Iran as a menace, a threat?" asked Chizhov, claiming that Iranian missiles don’t have the capability to reach "any European country."
The Russians have been accused of escalation on numerous levels, including recent fly-bys of fighter jets just 30 feet above US warships in the Baltic. Russian air activity close to NATO’s European Airspace increased massively during 2014, with allied aircrafts scrambled 400 times to intercept Russian planes that have switched off transponders.
"I would say that military air activity of NATO in the same area during the same period increased fourfold," Chizhov responded. "And NATO military planes fly around with their transponders shut off."
When pressed on the dangerous aspects of filing no flight plan, flying close to military ships or near NATO airspace, Chizhov became downright boisterous, saying "It is a sign of high professionalism of Russian pilots."