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Henry M. Robert

The so-called “conflict in Donbas” or Russia’s war against Ukraine

Matthias ZIMMER: “A lot of European countries, including Germany, take a keen interest in Ukraine and in the reform process”
14 June, 2017 - 17:57
Photo courtesy of the Institute of Diplomacy and International Partnership

Professor Matthias Zimmer, chair of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Committee of the German Bundestag, visited Ukraine recently. The German politician had a series of meetings with Ukrainian officials and gave a public presentation at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. The university press center noted that “on the basis of Germany’s experience, Professor Zimmer expressed his own view on the conflict in the east of Ukraine and on respecting state sovereignty.” In his interview to The Day, Dr. Zimmer told that the aim of his visit to Ukraine was to obtain information which he could get over to Germany, and to encourage Ukrainians to go on with the reforms without resting on our laurels. We started the interview with asking our guest if he saw any progress in Ukraine’s reforms.


“It is a very ambivalent picture that we got because on the one hand, politicians tend to praise the reform process, on the other hand, representatives of NGOs kept telling us that the reform process was one step forward and two steps back. So I think one has to look very closely into different issues, areas, to find out exactly where the reform process is progressing, and where we still have some major problems.”

But Ukraine did achieve the liberalization of the visa regime with the EU, and now we are effectively witnessing the ratification of the Association Agreement by the EU countries. Isn’t this an adequate evidence of progress on the path of reform?

“I think that visa liberalization is a major step. Mind you, Turkey is still waiting for visa liberalization with the European Union, so that is something to be rather proud of: that Ukraine has a status with the European Union that Turkey has not yet achieved.

“The ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement took a longer time in the Netherlands, but it eventually turned out well, and we are looking forward to the next consultation round between the EU and Ukraine that is due in July.”

Don’t you think that Ukraine should be given more incentive, in particular, the prospect of EU membership, when our country meets all the criteria necessary to join the European community?

“There is, of course, an underlying philosophy in the reform process in Ukraine that would make Ukraine, I would say, ‘fit for Europe.’ Which means that, as far as values and political practices are concerned, there is the goal of coming closer to the understanding of Western values as they are in the European Union.

“I hope that the momentum that was prevalent in Ukraine after the Maidan, as far as reforms are concerned, will continue in the future; that there will be no fatigue as far as Ukraine is concerned. Because right now it seems that a lot of European countries, including Germany, take a keen interest in Ukraine and in the reform process. And I very much would like to see Ukraine becoming ever closer to the European values and to the European world.

“It seems to me that in many cases it is still a long way, which is partly due to the fact that Ukraine is a state that is in war. And we always have to keep that in mind that it is a state with one region that is not under its control anymore, and one region that has been cut off against international law. That is a very important thing. Both, the east of Ukraine and Crimea, are something that is against international law.

“But a state that finds itself in such a situation, is not a ‘normal’ state in a way that other countries, that have no such problems, can behave and develop their own identity and formulate their own policy. This is really the long shadow that is darkening the perspective of Ukrainian policies.”

How can the international community make this shadow vanish under the rays of sunshine?

“We are actually doing it, we have sanctions imposed on Russia; Germany and France are conducting talks in the Normandy format in order to help solve the conflict; and there is some considerable economic aid and cooperation of the European Union with Ukraine. And I think that might not really solve the problems in short term, but we should be prepared to go a long way until those problems can be solved.”


Putin insists that the sanctions are not working, that they were a mistake. What is your opinion?

“Let me be very clear about that. It is the unambiguous position of the German government that there has been a breach of international law. The imposed sanctions are a direct answer to that violation of international law. And I do not see any reason why we should lift the sanctions as long as this violation of international law is still a fact.”

Shouldn’t this pressure be increased and additional sanctions imposed to make Russia fulfill its share of the Minsk agreements?

“It is very important that we all stick to the Minsk agreement and to the process that has been laid out in the Minsk agreement. I cannot speak for the German government, but in the process of further negotiating with Russia there could also be some additional sanctions imposed – or maybe not, I am not sure and I do not want to speculate about that. But it seems to me that such a grave violation of international law requires an unambiguous answer.

“I am sometimes concerned when I hear voices across Europe that would prefer to lift the ban and the sanctions against Russia. I think that would be the wrong way. That would be an incentive for Russia to continue its imperial policies, as it did before.”

By the way, do you think that after the September elections the new German government will stick to the sanctions policy against Russia?

“There are not too many options in Germany at the moment, as far as coalition governments are concerned. And it seems to me that all major players, all major parties in Germany are willing to continue those sanctions and are not prepared to give an additional incentive for the imperialistic behavior from Moscow.”


In your presentation at the Taras Shevchenko University you suggested your own solution for the conflict in Donbas, citing Germany’s experience of unification. Could you give more details?

“I did not exactly develop an idea. I only mentioned the fact that we also had a German experience, where the right to self-determination had been forcefully subdued and did not materialize until 40 years later. So sometimes it may take a bit longer for the underlying values of the international system, and self-determination is, of course, an essential part of it. Sometimes it may take longer to see the desired results. That was the only remark I made in that context.”

Mr. Ernst Reichel, German Ambassador to Ukraine, said some time ago (daily.rbc.ua): “The last parliamentary election in the GDR, which was to replace the communist regime, took place in the presence of the Western group of the Soviet troops and under the communist regime of the GDR. It does not mean that elections in Donbas can take place only when there are no Russian troops or with a Ukrainian flag on every administration building.” How would you comment on this statement?

“There is no clear-cut recipe of how you can use an example from Germany’s history to resolve the conflict in Donbas. German unification was a window of opportunity, and for the longest time we did not even think that it was possible. Then eventually the window opened. And two or three years later it would have been too late. So sometimes it takes a little bit of patience to solve conflicts.

“One of the other things that have been mentioned in this context is the conflict over Northern Ireland. It took years, and years, and years before eventually the problem could be solved. It does not mean that we would in any way argue, ‘lay it to rest for 50 years, and then we open up the file again.’ It only means that there are certain historical precedents that took a little bit longer. And maybe in Ukraine’s case we will have more happy circumstances and the problem will be solved in the near future.”


Do you believe Europe has learned a lesson from Russia’s aggression in Georgia in 2008, and later, in Ukraine in 2014?

“Putin once argued that the most depressing day in his biography was when the Soviet Union came down. It seems that, with the benefit of hindsight, that very much of his political strategies are aimed at restoring of some of the imperial glamour that the Soviet Union once had. Nowadays Russia is an imperial power aiming at expansion, disregarding international law.

“We should make it very clear that we cannot accept those violations of international law, but that the international system is, and should be, characterized by adhering to the norms of international law.

“I think at the moment there is real danger from Russia trying to influence Western democracies by ways of propaganda, fake news, manipulation, and by hacking e-mails and the like. That is much more dangerous. Just recently we have seen that in Qatar, electronic mail was apparently corrupted from Russia. Apparently, this was one of the reasons why the others, like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, closed their borders to Qatar. So there is real and imminent danger in what the Russians are doing, and we should definitely resist and make it very clear that this cannot stand.

“I think we should realize that the scenario of future warfare is not a scenario of tanks, and guns, and people shooting at each other, but a scenario in cyberspace. I think we should be much more prepared to protect ourselves in cyberspace, and to fend off any aggressions in cyberspace. Because in a society that is so much dependent on interconnectivity of things in the internet, this becomes essential for the survival of our societies.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day