The European Union's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, says the EU has contributed to the current conflict in Ukraine by "failing" to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin's past statements about the legacy of the U.S.S.R.
"We didn't take seriously the message that President Putin sent to us when he said a couple of years ago that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century," said Fuele in an interview at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters.
"At the 2008 Bucharest NATO-Russia summit, I was in the room when Putin said Ukraine was an 'artificial country,'" Fuele added. "Half of us laughed, half of us didn't understand. But we do understand now. We're not laughing anymore."
The past few months have seen Russia reclaim the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and support an armed separatist movement in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east. The conflict has already claimed dozens of lives, most recently in flashpoint Slovyansk, where at least three people died on May 2, including two Ukrainian pilots whose helicopters were shot down by separatists fighting for control of the eastern city.
Russia has also been linked to deadly violence in Ukraine's Euromaidan protests, which began after then President Viktor Yanukovych scuppered a key EU integration deal, under apparent pressure from Moscow.
Fuele, whose native Czech Republic this week marked the 10th anniversary of its accession to the European Union, says Brussels has failed to persuade Russia to look at European relations as "win-win," rather than a zero-sum game.
He also expressed concern at Moscow's sudden disregard for international conventions, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine's territorial integrity and this month's Geneva agreement aimed at preventing further violence in Ukraine.
"The most worrisome development in Europe since the Second World War is the fact that international law agreements like the Helsinki principles of 1975" -- the original treaty upholding territorial integrity and nonintervention -- "do not have relevance anymore," Fuele said.
"We had a two-polar world before, with containment and the Iron Curtain," he said. "We have a multipolar world now. What Putin has introduced is a zero-polar world, where the only rule is that there are no rules. This is terrible."
Fuele, whose five-year term is set to expire in October, says he is still hopeful that the EU can persuade Russia to meet at the negotiation table to find a peaceful resolution to the European continent's mounting power struggle.
But first, he acknowledged, the 28 EU member-states must put aside their own internal differences and find common cause in engaging constructively with Russia. A number of European members -- including Germany, the Mediterranean states, Hungary, and Finland -- are seen as putting economic ties with Russia ahead of a unified EU front.
"If we don't stand clear and firm and united, the implication for our own countries is clear," Fuele said. "Is it in the interest of Putin to have a strong European Union, expressing itself with one voice? No, it is not."
"I already see a number of populists and nationalists throughout the EU jumping on the Russian propaganda wagon," he added. "And I'm terrified about the possible consequences here."
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