In an interview with RFE/RL in Brussels, former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt talks frankly about the mistakes made by the European Union with regard to Russia, what he thinks the Russian president's next moves are likely to be, and why the bloc needs to engage more deeply with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Bildt spoke on March 22 with RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak on the sidelines of a Brussels Forum held by the German Marshall Fund.
RFE/RL: Looking back at the run-up to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013, all the way up to today, what could the EU have done differently in its policy toward the East?
Carl Bildt: I think we should have reacted more strongly towards Russia when they started to misbehave in the summer of 2013. Clearly, when they started the sanctions against Ukraine, we didn't see clearly the implications of that, and I remember that [former Polish Foreign Minister] Radek [Sikorski] and myself were trying to alert Brussels and Brussels was more or less asleep. Would that have made a difference? I don't know. But that is clearly a mistake.
RFE/RL: You and Sikorski are not foreign ministers anymore. You were considered to be hawkish towards President Vladimir Putin's Russia and at the same time strong supporters of the EU's Eastern Partnership. When you look at the EU today, do you still think there is the same commitment towards the Eastern Partnership and the same hawkishness towards Putin's Russia?
Bildt: I think that the commitment is clearly there. One of the good things that we did -- going back to 2008, because in 2008 two things happened -- there was the Union for the Mediterranean and there was the Eastern Partnership. While the French were keen to have the Union Mediterranean with a separate arrangement or whatever, we were keen to make the Eastern Partnership completely integrated with the [EU] institutions. That was very good. It is now solidly part of the EU institutions [in terms of] the calendar and what not. So the commitment is clearly there. I have no doubts about that.
On [your other question], Radek and myself, we were sort of ahead of the game in a sense that we -- too late perhaps, but earlier than others -- saw what was going to happen, saw where Russia was heading. I think more or less everyone has caught up with us by now. There were those who said that 'Putin is not going to do this, Putin is not going to do that,' and since then Putin has done virtually everything. So, unfortunately, I would say we have been proven right.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) meets with then-Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt in Kyiv in July.
RFE/RL: Is the EU still behind the curve?
Bildt: That is a difficult question. Because what has been proved the case is that Russia is somewhat more unpredictable. Will Putin, sort of, let his tanks roll in the direction of Odesa and Kyiv? I wouldn't say that it's excluded, but I don't think it is likely at the moment. Do we focus enough attention on trying to find out? We are focusing far more attention now than we used to do. Should we focus more? Yes, I think we should.
RFE/RL: What do you think will be Putin's next move?
Bildt: I think at the moment he is keen to build up the enclaves -- these "people's republics" virtually without peoples, by the way, but nevertheless -- strengthen them militarily. I think he would like them to be able to undertake military operations more on their own because he knows the political price associated with him sending in regular Russian Army time after time is too high. He is waiting to exploit weaknesses either in Ukraine or in the West. He believes that he has time on his side and that the West will get bored with the entire thing.
My best guess -- and I am saying this with the reservation that everyone has been wrong, including myself -- is that at the moment, for a couple of months, [there will be a] calming down, consolidating, then accusing Ukraine of violating the Minsk agreement, trying to get out of sanctions, hoping there will be division inside Ukraine, hoping there will be divisions inside the West, and then being ready to exploit those weaknesses.
RFE/RL: So what should the EU do right now?
Bildt: I think the most important thing is what was done by the European Council [on March 19-20] -- that is, essentially, to say the sanctions [against Russia] are going to be in place all this year. It has not been legally said like that, but politically that was the decision that was taken. I think that is a very good signal. Then I think we should shift focus to strengthen Ukraine in different ways. I think that the IMF program was very important. I think it is important that other countries are coming [forth] on top of that -- Sweden did, the U.S. is doing [it], but other European countries should be doing that as well. And then make certain that we truly help them with all the reforms necessary because Ukraine is going to go through a tough time and they need our solidarity, sympathy, and support. These things, I think, are the priorities."
RFE/RL: The EU Eastern Partnership summit in Riga is coming up in May. Looking at the draft declaration, it looks like it is going to be a very ambitious summit, as such. Should the EU be more ambitious at least towards the three countries -- Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- that are slowly approaching the EU?
Bildt: I think the most important signal coming out of Riga is going to be that we stay the course. There has to be a deeper engagement with the three perhaps in the form of helping them in implementing these [association] agreements. These agreements are very ambitious agreements that will require a lot of efforts by them. I think that they probably need more help than we have envisaged so far in actually doing that.
Then the critical issue is also how we engage with others -- what do we do with Armenia? How do we treat Azerbaijan and Belarus in terms of their somewhat lukewarm commitment to human rights, to put it very mildly. That needs to be addressed.
RFE/RL: So, no light at the end of the tunnel? In other words, no EU perspective for them?
Bildt: The light at the end of the tunnel, in my opinion, is there anyhow -- Article 49 [of the EU treaty stating that any European country can become a member of the EU] applies. If we talk about a membership perspective, Article 49 of the Treaty of Rome applies. Then there are sort of, as you know, [various] degrees of enthusiasm for that inside the [European] Union and that can only be tested when any of these [aspiring] countries are ready to take that particular step. That is quite a number of years [from now] in the future.