Donald Tusk is a former Polish prime minister and is aware that the Kremlin is working hard – and partially succeeding – to split the Europeans in order to get the EU sanctions regime to collapse. To sustain them requires unanimity. Photograph: Action Press/Rex
The new president of the European council says there can be no watering down of EU sanctions against Russia because this would be appeasement
Europe has to maintain broad economic sanctions against Russia until Ukrainian control of its border with Russia is restored or risk a crisis with the White House, said the politician responsible for forging agreement among 28 EU national leaders.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, told the Guardian that there could be no watering down of sanctions on Russia when EU leaders meet in Brussels this week despite pressure from several countries to ease penalties against the Kremlin. He accused certain EU leaders of preferring “appeasement” of Russia in the Ukraine conflict and of “naiveté or hypocrisy” in seeking to give Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt.
In his first interview with European media – with the Guardian and five other newspapers – Tusk said the terms of the Ukraine ceasefire agreed in Minsk last month between Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel had to be completely implemented before there could be any easing of sanctions.
The Minsk agreement stipulates that the government in Kiev has to regain control of borders in the east currently in the hands of the Russians and pro-Russian separatists. His comments signal that sanctions are unlikely to be lifted this year and could remain in place well into next year.
“The Minsk agreement makes sense only if fully implemented. Partial implementation would be very risky for Ukraine,” he said. “First, we need full implementation including full control of Ukraine’s borders … If we want to support the Minsk agreement, we have as a minimum to maintain existing sanctions. If Europe doesn’t maintain existing sanctions it would be a very critical moment in transatlantic relations. For [the Americans] it’s unacceptable to be more involved in the Ukrainian conflict than Europe. That’s the clear position of the Obama administration.”
Tusk, who took office as president of the European council in December, returned from Washington last week before an EU summit on Thursday and Friday that will wrestle with the Russian issue. The sanctions on Russian banks and businesses lapse in the summer unless renewed by the 28 leaders unanimously.
Any EU country can veto the extension. The Kremlin, say senior diplomats and officials in Brussels, is working hard to split the Europeans to get the sanctions regime to collapse. Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic are among EU countries keen to see the sanctions relaxed or scrapped.
“It’s very difficult because the member states demonstrate very openly that they have different points of view and different interests. There is no doubt. A common policy of the 28 member states doesn’t exist. We have 28 different foreign policies,” said the president. “I can’t accept the argument that we have to believe in Russian goodwill. When I hear we have to believe in President Putin’s or the separatists’ goodwill, I know it’s either naiveté or hypocrisy. The comparison with appeasement applies … about the approach of some politicians who say Ukraine is too far from us, not our business … You know the melody.”
In contrast to the many EU leaders urging a more accommodating policy towards Russia, Tusk described Putin’s strategy as directly hostile and requiring a tough response.
“I know – it’s not my intuition, but my knowledge – that Putin’s policy is much simpler than our sophisticated discussions. The only effective answer to Putin’s clear and simple policy is pressure. [His policy is] simply to have enemies, to be stronger than them, to destroy them and to be in conflict.”
Because of this, Tusk is boycotting the 70th anniversary celebrations of the end of the second world war in Moscow on 9 May.
“A presence at the military parade, hand-in-hand with today’s aggressors and a person using weapons against civilians in eastern Ukraine? For me, delicately speaking, it’s too ambiguous.”
Tusk has been invited to Moscow for the events and has declined. Obama and François Hollande, as well as other east European leaders, are also staying away. Most sensitively, Merkel will also be absent – although she will be in Moscow the following day to lay wreaths.
Last month’s truce was not ideal, but it reduced the killing and gave the Ukrainians breathing space, Tusk said.
“This is about preventing two risks – war or capitulation. It is far from satisfactory, but this is a process which limits Russian aggressive behaviour,” he said. “It was also a request from the Ukrainian side. They stand no chance in a permanent hot conflict against separatists, which means against Russia. It gives time to Ukraine maybe to prepare for a long, long conflict.”
Obama, Tusk added, was not asking the Europeans to step up the sanctions. “It was a clear message: maintaining the sanctions is enough for them to feel we’re still together in this conflict … The assessment of this conflict between Obama and Merkel is very similar.”
Tusk came into office in December following seven years as the most successful prime minister of Poland of the post-1989 democratic era. The new job is nothing like the old job. If he exercised decisiveness and leadership as prime minister, he now has to scale back his ambitions and facilitate the endless compromises and consensus that are the daily diet of the EU.
“What I have to learn – and for sure I understand now much better than before – is that I am here to find a compromise between 28 member states. And that is very, very difficult in such a critical time as today,” he said. “A piece of something is better than having all of nothing. This is the main method here to get results.”
Besides Ukraine, the Greek crisis and the euro, Tusk has another big preoccupation. Although from a country that is not in the single currency, he also presides over eurozone summits. He has avoided pressure from various quarters to call a eurozone summit about Greece because he fears that it could degenerate into a slanging match between national leaders and make matters worse.
“Can you imagine in the worst moment discussions between chancellor [Merkel] and [Greek] prime minister [Alexis] Tsipras? It would be useless.”
With the new Greek government locked in a war of words with its German-led creditors over the terms of its bailout and the dictated austerity, Tusk said that a Greek exit from the currency would be “idiotic”. But he conceded that blundering and brinkmanship on both sides could produce an outcome that no one wanted, an accidental Greek exit from the euro or “Grexident”.
“It would be for sure the worst-case scenario. I can see nothing good in such a decision. Of course, now we are a little bit threatened by so-called Grexident. The whole process is very difficult and we have no time. What do we have to do to avoid such an idiotic scenario? Because we have had too many events in European history that happened by accident.”
With an eye to the threat to European stability represented by Putin’s revisionism and the Kremlin’s attempts to divide and enfeeble the EU, Tusk saw the Greek crisis less as an economic and financial dilemma than as a political and geostrategic problem. In other words, the Russians would be delighted to see Greece fall out of the euro.
“We have to understand, Greece is not only a question of money,” he said. “Can you imagine Europe without Greece? With the situation in Libya, with the very fragile situation in the Balkans, Moldova, Transnistria, Cyprus. The consequences for Europe would not only be financial, the results would be the most dramatic chapter in all the history of the European Union. But it is not only about money and geopolitical threats. It is about dignity, emotions. We have to avoid anything that can humiliate the other side. Dignity and humiliation and different emotions are very important in politics. Not only numbers.
“A lot of Greeks today feel humiliated. This new government and Syriza, this is a very difficult and specific case. But is Europe going to collapse because of some irresponsible statements in Greece? I can understand especially the German politicians because most often they are the target of this because Germans are the biggest creditors. I told Tsipras, ‘you need help, stop joking, you need billions of euros and you can’t attack and offend your possible helpers every day. It’s useless and counter-productive’.”