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Carl Bildt: “With Zelenskyy Couple of Things Are Encouraging”
21 September, 2019

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden, now co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Bildt, among other things, is one of the key experts with knowledge on Ukraine and Russia.

Hromadske had a chance to talk to him about the new Ukrainian government, about what it should seek and what we can expect from it, particularly in Ukraine’s negotiations with Russia, as well as about the E.U.’s crisis of vision and the nature of the conflict nowadays. 

You’ve been an adviser to [Ukraine’s president Petro] Poroshenko for some time. So how is it going now and on what that, let’s say, relationship ended?

What happened during the Poroshenko period, I think was a great achievement by Ukraine by the way. I vividly remember the period in 2013 and primarily the spring of 2014 when this country was on the verge of military, political and financial collapse. And there were quite a number of people in the East and in the West who said that Ukraine is gone.

But Ukraine was recovered and is back as a normal prospering country. And that was due to the achievement of the Ukrainians themselves, the election of Poroshenko and then the Arseniy Yatsenyuk government and all of the things that were done, and also the support of the West. So it was a very important period. And now the country has entered clearly a very different political phase.

Do you have some early advice [to the new Ukrainian government]? The ones that probably hadn’t been done earlier or something you think you can manage now.

There are a couple of things where I’m encouraged. He [president Volodymyr Zelenskyy] is now talking about the big land reform issue. And I remember discussing it with Poroshenko X number of times, and the IMF, everyone has been pressing … I always played the argument, “If the Russians could do it better, why can’t you do it?” There was always the argument that we’ve never been against it, we’re in favor of it, it’s too split, too controversial.

Now, let’s see if that happens. That’s going to be important. Because Ukraine has fantastic potential when it comes to food production for a hungry growing world.

So that’s encouraging and there are a couple of other things that are encouraging. I’m slightly worried by this [Zelenskyy’s] tendency to go around the country and say, “You have money, you should build the road.” That reminds me somewhat of what I’ve seen happening in Russia. And it’s not the way to run the state. But that might be somewhat of temporary politics rather than long-term strategy.

Now we are talking at probably a new wave of negotiation with Russia, particularly in the Normandy format. But it’s obvious as well that the rhetorics had partly changed from the president Zelenskyy, I mean the humanitarian side of it. And we are definitely speaking about the major prisoners' exchange between Russia and Ukraine. So how do you look at that and where do you see the things to look at?

I think it’s too early to see where this is leading. Clearly, Kremlin wants to test Zelenskyy. Fair enough. They got this new guy in Kyiv, they are quite uncertain where he is heading.

So they tested him with this particular exchange. The exchange happened, that was good. It was obvious that they [the Russians] had one demand, and that was the MH17 guy. You can well understand why they wanted him back. And they got it. The question is how do they interpret this in terms of what will happen – do they think that this has shown the strength of Zelenskyy or do they believe this showed the weakness of Zelenskyy. I don’t know, but the Kremlin interpretation of the negotiations for the prisoner exchange will clearly determine the next step that the Kremlin is ready for.

There will be further steps. I mean they started rather tough, with the "passportization" and all of those things. And they will take it step-by-step and see how far they can take it from their point of view.

You definitely do not speak on behalf of the “international community”, but you are clearly a representative. In particular in case of this witness in case of MH17, [Volodymyr] Tsemakh, there was a huge concern among the Ukrainian public, in particular when there was all this, at first, rumors, that Mr. Tsemakh would be exchanged, that that would be a disaster for Ukrainian image, that Ukraine had given the suspect, though, I should I say he used to be a witness at that stage, and he’d been here for two months. So how do you see this story, also that some cases we often hear from the Western leaders that there is a need for compromise, that you can’t always achieve what you want. And that sometimes the difficult decisions are taken.

True. There is always the need for compromise. And there are always difficult decisions, it’s not black and white when it comes to these particular issues.

Of course, there were significant question marks with this particular decision that was taken [with regard to Mr. Tsemakh]. But at the same time, everyone wants to support President Zelenskyy, everyone wants him to succeed. And there is a tendency, well, if that’s the thing that really needs to be done, then okay, fine, after all, it did happen.

But to say that there was happiness in the West over this particular aspect of the exchange … There was happiness over the exchange! Needless to say, that’s been discussed for a long, long, long time. But you can also interpret this particular aspect as it shows that the Russians are really worried about the MH17 investigations. The fact that the Russians were so desperately keen to get the guy back under Moscow control shows that they fear the continued international investigation over MH17.

All the other people who’ve been brought back, they can also testify in many other cases [against Russia]. If you still get them to testify in so many cases when Russia had broken the law, either this is the attack in the Kerch Strait, or something with the tortures toward the political prisoners they caught, you can’t say that one court or one testimony is more important, just more significant than the others. We understand why MH17 could be considered more important for the West yet.

Well, MH17 is always special. Always because it is really a smoking gun, to put in those terms. A smoking gun in a sense that this was obviously the Russian army weapon system unit brought onto the territory of Ukraine. And the fact that the persons who were there, the exact equipment, exactly which unit of the Russian army it was coming from were approved conclusively that’s a smoking gun that makes the Russians nervous. 

So it’s not only the fact that it was a humanitarian tragedy and a lot of people of different countries died, it’s really the smoking gun when it comes to the involvement of not only the hanging-out-Kalashnikovs [rifles] or artillery piece, but we are talking about a sophisticated piece of weaponry, form of qualified Russian military unit deep into Russia that was there and doing this.

Do you see that there could be a difference in the role of France and Germany in the conflict and what else could be done? What Ukrainians can also expect from the partners. 

Let’s see. President Zelenskyy is clearly concerned with the humanitarian aspect of the crisis and with the situation in eastern Ukraine, not only the occupied territories, but he’s very concerned with building up the infrastructure, the economy, and the humanitarian situation in the Kyiv-run parts of the east of Ukraine. He thinks that not enough has been done in that particular respect.

And I think the international community will do whatever it can in trying to support him in that, including what can be done in order to ease the humanitarian aspects of what is the occupied territories.

At the same time, there will not be a resolution of the issue without there being a readiness to actually do something, to do some compromises.

Are there any signs as of yet, of the Kremlin being ready for that? There is no enthusiasm in Russia for the Donbas thing. They don’t understand it, they can think it is a waste of time and money, whatever. But at the same time, the regime in Kremlin is in a sort of fragile position. Are they ready to do a compromise that would be seen as a compromise by the Russian public? That remains to be seen. Kremlin must demonstrate that they are ready to take a step of some sort. And whether they are ready for that – I don’t know. 

We are expecting that finally president Zelenskyy and Mr. Trump would meet. They were expected to meet in Poland, then there were discussions about a longer visit to the U.S. In the end, as I understand, they might meet during the UN General Assembly. So what do you think for the new president, as any new leader, would be good advice on what to expect and how to build the relations with President Trump? 

What does President Trump know about Ukraine? I don’t know. Probably not that much. So I think it would be important for President Zelenskyy to give a view to President Trump what his vision is of where Ukraine should be in 5, 10, 15 years. Not only as a place to build golf courses or recreation facilities. There is an enormous economic potential of this country, enormous business opportunities, and of those things. That could be something to present. So it is not only the question of the conflict with Russia, that’s obviously very important, but also the potential and the nature of Ukraine.

For the last few years, we’ve been discussing more or less the crisis of the European Union, more or less the crisis of vision. And we look at the populists coming to power not only in different countries, we are looking at the situation in the countries not only like Hungary and Poland but like Italy. What is now the major challenge for the E.U., if we speak about the vision and getting out of this choice between staying as it is, what people don’t like, and those new things, in particular, populist promises? We don’t see so far the third offer.

No, we don’t, because the European Union is in a state of transition and it will take some time for it to sort of settle itself.

If we look at the big issues, clearly the European Union must be more assertive as a global actor. Strategic sovereignty of Europe must be reinforced. And that also has to do with the transatlantic relationship. The transatlantic relationship is not what it used to be, to put it in the mildest possible form. We have faced the prospect of a trade war. Trump has a trade war with China. Is Europe gonna be the next? We must be prepared for that. That’s a priority. I think people are more aware of that in Brussels than you see in the public pronouncements.

Then you have the green issues, the climate issues, the transition to the new era, that’s a major thing which is very demanding. We clearly see the rapid rise of the green issues in the electorate, particularly among young people. 

The third issue is the digital revolution. European Union is an economic powerhouse in the world, but we’ll not be an economic powerhouse in the world fifty years down the line if we are not speeding up on the digital transformation. And has that caught on sufficiently in the different European countries? No, it hasn’t.

I would say these three issues are issues that have to be at the forefront of what is done in the next few years.

Can you now speak how the conflict developed in the modern world? What things you think have changed, especially the way how international organizations can come into the solution, whether some of the things stopped to work? For instance, we’re waiting for the international peacekeepers here in Ukraine, and this is a very postponed discussion. What would be your lessons?

When we talk about conflicts in the past, we would primarily talk about the interstate conflicts, sort of armies of states meeting each other on the battlefield, and that was it. Bad enough and highly dangerous.

In the post-Cold War period, we have been dealing with primarily the failing states, fragile states, collapsing states, ethnic violence, inside states, terrorism. It’s being different types of conflict that have been dominating. We see the meltdown of parts of the Middle East, we see Afghanistan, the Balkans. It has to be said that the international community wasn’t very prepared to deal with those particular issues, and it’s been sort of a learning exercise.

Are we better now at dealing with these issues? Hope so. Do we see the risk of interstate conflict coming back? Yes, perhaps we do. Have we forgotten how to deal with the interstate conflict? Yes, there is an argument to be said for that. So it’s an evolving landscape.

We’ve been for a while, in a post-Cold War period, in a good situation in a sense that we could work together in the Security Council. I remember when I dealt with the Balkans Russia was a partner. We didn’t always agree on everything but didn’t always agree with France either, by the way. I was working very closely with Americans and Russians, and French, and Brits. They [Russians] were part of it. That’s no longer the case. And that we’ve seen the consequence of, let’s say, the Syria war where there has been no way whatsoever for the Security Council to come together on the policy. And that may have made the conflict resolution across the world much more difficult.