Exclusive Interview with Dr Frank Umbach (Associate Director of the European Centre for Energy and Resource Security, King’s College in London)
EUBULLETIN has recently talked to Dr Frank Umbach – a leading expert on EU energy policy as well as energy, foreign and security policies in Russia, the Caspian region, Asia-Pacific – mainly about the EU’s failure to anticipate Russia’s readiness to safeguard its sphere of influence, the causes and possible future scenarios of the ongoing and still escalating crisis in Ukraine, and the quest for common interests between the European and Russian strategies in Syria and Libya. Dr Umbach is well-placed to share his expertise on the dramatic developments in Ukraine as he has also been, since 2010, a member of the new Ukraine 2020 Task Force – an initiative of the US-Ukraine Foundation in Washington and the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy in Kiev to support Ukraine’s European integration.
EUBULLETIN: You have closely followed and analyzed Europe’s relations with Russia for some three decades. Can you make some kind of prediction what lays ahead for the future of EU’s and NATO’s relations with Russia?
F.Umbach: I think the overall relationship between the EU and NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other has always been complicated since the 1990s because of the NATO extension to the east. Though at that time, on our side, in the EU, most people thought it would not be a problem to expand the EU relationships to our eastern neighborhood. That was the overall assumption on our side. I myself have always, already at the end of the 1990s, questioned that assumption because the Russian view on the EU or WEU (Western European Union), an organization which is no longer existent and that was to serve as a military arm of the EU, was that both were not very effective – so the Russians did not take them very seriously. But it was quite clear that if Russia would perceive the military institution of the EU as an effective actor, then automatically the EU would also compete with Russia.
EUBULLETIN: The EU’s Eastern Partnership policy was arguably devised with good intentions. But why was then Moscow feeling increasingly uneasy and irritated about what it perceived as growing Western ‘intrusions’ into its ‘sphere of influence’?
F.Umbach: Well, I was mentioning these things because until very recently the Eastern Partnership was basically based on the assumption that it would not cause any problems with Russia with regards to Ukraine or other countries. So we justified our expanding relationship with Ukraine and other countries by arguing, well, this is a win-win situation for everybody. It is a win situation for the EU, it is a win situation for Ukraine and other partner countries, as well as it is a win situation for Russia because the EU aid and assistance is stabilizing these countries. But from the Russian side, it has been increasingly perceived that the EU is becoming a geopolitical competitor in what the Russians call their sphere of influence. And that has been overlooked and that led maybe to some kind of assumption that if we have these partnerships, these will not cause any problem with Russia.
EUBULLETIN: How does the current crisis in Ukraine fit into this incredibly complex and complicated picture?
F.Umbach: Although when we in the EU recognized, since the last summer, that Russia is putting an increasing pressure on Ukraine, and not only on Ukraine but also on Moldova where we had this chocolate war, and other Eastern Neighborhood countries, so since that time we started to view EU policies to these countries very critically. But we had overlooked this development until the Vilnius summit, and then we had no contingency plan what to do. And then the outcry was then quite high because we also recognized that the Russian blackmail policies of pressure are really working. That was Yanukovic’s (former Ukrainian President) official justification that may not fully explain his actions but to a large extent, of course, Yanukovic made the decision to withdraw from the Association Agreement with the EU because of the very strong dependency of Ukrainian economy on Russia. Now it looks somehow understandable but that was not on our radar screen until that point – we did not expect that he would cancel the last minute Association Agreement.
EUBULLETIN: But if you look at, for example, the case of the still evolving situation in Syria or the Russian endorsement of the NATO operations in Libya, these scenarios have shown that NATO and EU on the one hand and Russia on the other perhaps share some common interests and strategic perspectives. But now if you look at the latest development in Ukraine, particularly in light of the Russian military deployment there, where, and in what particular areas, can the interests of EU-NATO and Russia meet in the future? In what areas can they find a common ground?
F.Umbach: Well, it depends on the regions and on the countries. The common interests can still be found with regards to Afghanistan, particularly when the US and NATO forces go out because then this means for Russia that Afghanistan will become even more unstable. And that of course causes concerns on their side. So there is a prospect that NATO and Russia will work together somehow. And other countries and other regions are more problematic because our interests in Syria or Libya have been different in the past already so Russia was basically trying to defend its present status, its economic interests in those countries. It is the largest weaponry supplier for Syrian forces, for example, and Russia had also a naval port which it used in Syria, so it was very much concerned about its short-term interests that are being hurt by the instability but also by certain policies.