Sa, 25.03.2023

France and the USA talk about diplomatic solutions to the war in Ukraine. Vseviov: this is where Estonia has clear red lines

Meinhard Pulk
, ajakirjanik
France and the USA talk about diplomatic solutions to the war in Ukraine. Vseviov: this is where Estonia has clear red lines
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Jonatan Vseviov.
Jonatan Vseviov. Photo: Tairo Lutter
  • A mistaken phone call of the Americans caused diplomatic confusion.
  • Estonia’s advantage on the global level is our absence of colonial era burden.
  • Absence of corruption in the EU “may have been an optical illusion”.

When Estonia had made known its position in the dispute over the establishment of price ceiling for Russian oil, exceptionally intensive diplomatic activity broke out in our direction. During the avalanche of talks, it even happened that one Estonian minister mistakenly conveyed to the United States a position which Estonia actually does not support. Jonatan Vseviov, Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated in an interview that it should not be overestimated as a separate diplomatic incident.

Among other things, Vseviov stated that there is no magic cure against Hungary's blackmailing behavior, and when supporting Ukraine, it is necessary to take into account Hungary, which violates the principles of the rule of law.

Vseviov is also convinced that Estonia has its own role and opportunity in persuading the Global South, especially the African and Asian countries, in forming attitudes towards Russia's genocidal war. Here, the absence of colonial past benefits Estonia. “We have proposed and will continue to propose that if we want Europe to have a Northern or Eastern European face which does not have the burden of the colonization era, then our citizens should simply be directed to be ambassadors in these countries," said the secretary general.

Hungary again delayed for a very long time the approval of the European Union's 18 billion euro aid package to Ukraine, because the EU blocked the payment of money from the recovery fund to Hungary due to a violation of the rule of law. Will it continue to be the case that Hungary is blackmailing the EU, but on the other hand, the EU cannot punish them for violations of the rule of law, because the support packages for Ukraine must be approved?

This is a good example of where every victory contains a little bit of compromise because in the end we are very satisfied with the fact that we got the money moving towards Ukraine.

But, yes, this is how it will be. Because in order for the EU to decide something, all 27 member states must agree. We can judge it – and we do judge it and think about what to do with it in the long term – but that does not change the fact that here and now we must get the EU make not only this decision, but also the next one. And all this requires the consent of all member states.

Achieving the consent of the member states does not only follow the linear path where we sit around the table, convince the other side and the arguments are so good that they say: “We thought about it and we agree”. Often we have to give way to their interests in some matters where we otherwise might not. But yes, in our view, Hungary's behavior is problematic; we do not approve of it in any way. But in the end, Hungary's consent is also needed to move something in the direction of Ukraine.

Do you have any magic solution to offer regarding Hungary?

No. If there was one, it would have been already used. And sometimes I see that people offer very simple solutions. Most of the time, simple solutions do not work.

When the war ends at some point, the behavior like Hungary will probably continue with all other current issues.

Foreign policy requires 27 member states. And if a question arises which is extremely important to the 26, then the 27th will have the opportunity to ask something in return. But it is short-sighted to think that it is possible to simply take Europe hostage every day. We also showed now that, in principle, we can pass the obstacle. Twenty-six is a pretty big number. There are quite a few very large countries among the 26. Twenty-six of us can often find both plan B and plan C. We need not like it, but it is not impossible. Of course, they also know it in Budapest.

Russia itself has not been a reliable gas partner for Hungary. Do you see any signs that the business relationship between the two could change?

It is difficult to predict, because Russia always dispenses reliability or unreliability selectively. In some places it is emphatically reliable, in others emphatically unreliable. I cannot say what its considerations might be in all this. It is probably in Russia's interest to show that they are, to some extent, still reliable in the event of some kind of political reaction. But what reaction has there been? The ninth package of sanctions is currently being approved [it was approved on Friday - MP]. With Hungary’s votes as well. Therefore I do not know how long Russia will keep hoping that it will be able to buy friends in Europe using cheap energy or even dirtier methods. Not particularly.

Why did the $35 oil price cap coalition fail and eventually agree with $60? Initially, the coalition was a little bigger than just Estonia and Poland; the other Baltic countries must have also been in the group.

So and so. It wasn't, actually. It was never a coalition of 35. And it was not a coalition at all. The coalition was formed for tactical reasons in the course of this work and only conditionally. We just happened to have the same understanding of what needed to be done at that moment. But it was not a plan agreed upon in advance to do something together. Our position consisted of three important principles. This was a position born in Tallinn, not in an international coalition. First, 65 is too high. Secondly, whatever number we agree on, we want to have a fixed mechanism for reviewing it, based on the desire – and this must be written down – to reduce Russia's energy export revenues. Not for any other considerations. This policy aims to reduce Russia's oil revenues. And thirdly, we want to move quickly on the ninth sanctions package. We do not want the oil price cap issue to take hostage other measures for raising the cost of the Russian aggression.

When this proposal was put on the table, we formulated our position and it turned out that Poland was very much in agreement with us, mainly emphasizing the first aspect. Lithuania as well. And then there were the countries which had a diametrically different position in the European Union.

Then began an intense diplomatic process to agree on what could be agreed upon. And it is quite impressive that when the G7 countries have come up with an agreement among themselves, the European Commission puts this agreement on the table, the majority of EU member states are behind the agreement, and that if the compromise offered to us is 65, then it is even possible for one or two member states to shift it. This happened in a situation where several countries had a diametrically opposing point of view. So no, nothing fell apart there. We won. We got exactly what we wanted.

The Wall Street Journal wrote that Finance Minister Annely Akkermann (RE) approved the $65 oil price ceiling during a telephone conversation with the US representative, although Estonia's position was different. Was it an American trap to try to resolve the impasse by calling a young minister whose responsibility does not really include the issue?

It was not. It came about because this is such an interesting story which is exciting to cover in the press. But in fact, during the same 24-hour period when this phone call took place, we had other phone calls with the Americans. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say there were about a dozen calls. Once we made our position known – and quite loudly – an extraordinarily intensive diplomatic activity erupted in our direction. To focus now on this one phone call, which may not have been the best choice by the Americans, is misleading. At the same time, there were nine other phone calls which were very well chosen. The next day, all 10 were chosen correctly. A day later, the US secretary of the treasury called our prime minister. The number of calls made to our ambassador in Washington, to myself and to other officials, was even greater.

Therefore no, it cannot be considered an isolated diplomatic incident. It was just a curious incident taken out of context. As a whole, it did not have any special importance. There were just so many of these calls. And that includes just the Americans: America is not part of the European Union. The main negotiations at that time were held with the European Commission and the other EU member states. Consensus was needed in the EU, and the Americans simply let us know from the sidelines what they thought about the matter. We let them know what we thought. We just informed each other. But the negotiations were not between us and the Americans, but between the member states.

Although the Americans were not directly involved in the negotiations, they initiated this massive diplomatic process. What could their motivation have been?

They had very clear interests in this affair because the G7 had agreed and they wanted to have results. It was clear that in order to get the result, the EU has to agree. Without the EU, all measures will be far weaker – just as the measures we (the European Union) take will be far weaker without the British, Canadians, Americans, Japanese and other bigwigs joining us. So that was their interest, absolutely ordinary, legitimate and normal. We have always emphasized since the beginning of the war that we have existential security interests at stake in this matter. We speak up when we feel that our views diverge from the proposals. We speak boldly, and it must be kept in mind that the consent of 27 countries is needed in the EU. We are a part of these 27.

Speaking of the European Parliament corruption scandal: what does it tell you that Qatar has chosen as its target an institution of seemingly minor influence in the European scale?

First of all, I do not want to say that the European Parliament is unimportant. Secondly, at this point, as far as I know, suspicion has been raised. No one has been convicted. So I would not hasten to judge anyone until the courts have decided something.

But as a general trend, it shows that corruption exists, it is a real and a threat potentially affecting security. Corruption does not only occur within countries where some companies try to gain an advantageous position compared to others by using illegal methods. Corruption is also a tool of international politics. We have seen this all the time in the example of Russia, where Russia has offered both direct and indirect benefits, figuratively speaking, to buy friends among the European politicians and countries. Nor is Russia the only one involved in this so-called business. This is not a surprise, and a case like this is a reminder that this is how things work.

But I have faith in all of our law enforcement agencies that sooner or later such cases will come out, the courts will judge the cases, the guilty will receive fair punishments and all those who have been involved in such things will be completely discredited. But until the court has decided what happened, there is no way I can assume the role of the court and convict anyone.

The EU is historically known for a fairly low level of corruption. Has it been only an optical illusion?

Maybe it was an optical illusion. Because especially now during the last year, Europe has been able to prove itself as a geopolitical actor with increasing self-confidence. Understandably, this means that all those who want to influence us will use illegal methods in addition to the usual, normal, legal methods. We have to be prepared for such interest displayed in the European Union. I think that the targets are all the EU institutions. The question is simply who the corruptors can reach and who fall into this trap. Every such case which comes to light – and especially if it ends with a guilty verdict – will discourage the next reckless person from becoming trapped. It is therefore very positive that these affairs are coming out. They purge our system.

What do you think about French President Macron's idea of providing security guarantees to Russia? How to explain such a position especially in the current context?

Fortunately, I do not have to explain it. Macron must have, as I understand it, explained it a bit. I consider this a big mistake.

At the same time, the Americans are also increasingly talking about a diplomatic solution and recommending it to the Ukrainians. Is this a worrying trend?

In the end, wars end in peace. The peace that comes at the end of war is negotiated. And these negotiations can always be called a diplomatic process. Diplomacy always has a role to play. The question is under what conditions peace occurs and according to which rules life will go on in peacetime.

Estonia has very clear red lines here. Our red lines are, in short: the peace that follows this war must reassert, reaffirm, enforce those principles which, at least on paper, have guided European security for the past decades. These are the most general principles that one country cannot change the borders of another country by force of arms, and a larger country cannot decide for a smaller country, even if it is its neighbor, what its foreign, domestic and security policy is. This is the principle of sovereignty.

Those who commit the most heinous crimes against international law must be brought to justice. Even if it is not possible to bring all the culprits to justice, this process should be real, actual and politically enforced. That one large country or why not a small country – mostly this disease tends to affect large countries – does not have the right to decide which nations are nations and which are not. Nations have the right to self-determination in Europe. These principles must be enforced, and they cannot be enforced only by words, but also by the actions and behavior which states undertake. All of this is, understandably, at stake in this war.

This is exactly what has happened there (in Ukraine). A great power questions the territorial integrity and right to sovereignty of a smaller country by force of arms, it carries out a crime of aggression which has very strong characteristics of a genocidal war. It systematically and continuously commits war crimes.

One day it will be over and then there will be peace. The question is what that peace will be like. A peace which accepts such behavior and states that under certain conditions one can act in this way. Or will this peace be one which completely rules it out.

As a small country located on the edge of Europe, we cannot accept any other European security system but the one which re-enforces these basic principles. So it is very correct to say that at what moment and under which conditions peace is finally agreed upon will depend on the decisions of the Ukrainians. But what Europe's future security will be like in this peace depends very much on what the other countries involved in the European security think, including us. This is also the reason why we are so active in foreign policy in this current war. Because at stake are our own existential security interests, not just those of the Ukrainians.

Prompted by Macron's security assurances, a very hypothetical question. If the Sumy and Kharkiv regions are constantly being bombed, what do you think the reaction of the Western countries would be if at some point Ukraine decides that it is in their interest to invade the Belgorod region across the border to protect the border regions under bombardment?

I do not want to speculate on what the reaction of the Western countries might be. As far as I understand, the goal of the Ukrainians is to liberate their territory. I honestly doubt they are going to spend resources trying to invade foreign territory. They have had some pretty significant successes in liberating their territory. First in the Kharkiv region and then in the direction of Kherson.

But we need not be blinded by this success. Huge areas are still occupied and the Ukrainians have made it clear that they plan to move forward militarily to liberate their territory, including Crimea. Whether and when it can be done is a separate question. But I have understood that this is the main goal of Ukraine. And the entire democratic world fully supports Ukraine in this goal. Not only with words, but also with real material help.

What is your forecast for the next few weeks and months? Melitopol was bombarded. Could this be a prelude to a bigger counterattack?

Militarily, I do not want to go into complete speculation, because yes, we can all read the public reports of what's going on now, draw our own conclusions. The Ukrainians have proven that they can keep their planned military operations secret and they do it on purpose. So all those stories which reach the public from the so-called experts predicting what will happen at the military-tactical level next week or month, are most genuine speculations, which may correspond to the truth, but may also be 180 degrees away from the truth.

But the final solution to the war will not come as a result of tactical operations, but strategically, where the question is whose policy will prevail. The Western politics and Russian politics are in direct collision with each other. We want to re-enforce the basic principles of the European security architecture. This specifically means restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine, etc. Russia wants to change all this. Russia has also proven this with specific proposals for an agreement. One or the other will prevail in the end.

It can be noticed that, in addition to Iran and North Korea, South Africa has started supplying Russia with weapons. Is Russia now actively lobbying third world countries around the world for arms deals?

The news that another country has given weapons to Russia is, of course, worrying and noteworthy. Because they are signs that Russia, at least episodically, is trying to break out of the ring of isolation in which they have placed themselves with their actions. But militarily, it does not have too much significance.

The vast majority of the weaponry they are currently launching against the civilian infrastructure of Ukraine is of Soviet or Russian origin. To hope that Russia will exhaust its forces because its ammunition reserves are running out is a bit naive in my opinion. We are working hard to break Russia's strategic will to stay on this course. But according to the estimates, unfortunately, they should all still have quite a lot of ammunition. Especially if their main goal is not to break the Ukrainian military, as it seems to be now, but to destroy the Ukrainian civil infrastructure, the broader goal of which is, of course, to break the Ukrainians' faith and hope for a better future, in order to force some kind of agreement considering Russia's interests.

Here again, it must be underlined that Russia's strategic goals have not changed in the slightest compared to a year ago. Their goal is not control over some Ukrainian territories. This is an acceptable intermediate stage for them. But this intermediate stage would not last long. Their goal is all of Ukraine, and their goal is to turn Europe's security architecture upside down. As they said in their draft agreements [2021 Russia's proposals to the Western countries - M. P], presented at the end of 2010, are basically a rollback of NATO's collective defense to the pre-1997 period, so that some kind of gray area would emerge between the borders of classical Western Europe and Russia.

In this situation, where they did not succeed in taking Kiev militarily, they now want to move towards this goal in intermediate stages. But it still does not change the matter. One should not think that it is possible to make a compromise with a party which wants to see the complete destruction of the security architecture of both Ukraine and Europe.

Before, you talked about winning over the so-called Global South. Which side – the West or Russia – has been more successful?

We have. It is becoming apparent gradually. The best benchmark has been the votes in the UN and other international bodies. Gradually, these resolutions condemning Russia's actions have gained the support of a significant majority of the world's countries. A very small minority of rogue countries vote together with Russia.

Whose winning over do you consider the greatest achievement? Kazakhstan seems to be the most interesting case at first glance.

The West as a whole is working with the whole world. There are perhaps only a few countries which can be placed in the category of the hopeless at present. We are trying to explain to everyone the principles which are currently under attack in this war. Not only European-specifically, but globally important. And if we allow such a world to emerge, where a superpower, a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council gets freedom of action, violating the basic principles of international law, then there is no country in the world which can feel safe. These arguments work. But, of course, tactically, it always depends on many additional nuances, whether the country will ultimately remain neutral or vote with us.

The Russian propaganda does not sleep either. They have redirected the main foreign policy activities from the Western countries to the so-called Global South. They use the extensive network of relations and embassies left over from the Soviet era, lies and propaganda, and promote all kinds of historical narratives about how the West is untrustworthy, the old colonizers, and try to detach these countries from us one by one.

The European powers have sensed this concern that it might be difficult for us in the Global South and talked about it for months. But just worrying is no use here. So what can we do? By hiding behind a rock we cannot escape the fact that the war is going on and it must be stopped. If a problem exists, it needs to be addressed and dealt with.

Estonia does not have embassies in all these countries. We do not have an extensive network of relationships as the great powers have. But the European Union has its own foreign service, which is present in almost every important country in the world. And if necessary, we have proposed and will continue to propose that if we want Europe to be the face of Northern or Eastern Europe, which does not have any burden of the colonization era, then our citizens should simply be directed to be (the European Union’s) ambassadors in these countries. There are quite a few Estonian citizens; there could be more. I think we can present our arguments quite convincingly on behalf of all of Europe. And precisely to show Russia's current activities as neo-colonialism, which is certainly not popular in Africa or other countries of the Global South.

Urmas Reinsalu instructed the diplomats to make a road map of Estonia's chances to seek the position of NATO Secretary General. Is the memo ready?

We have dozens of memos from this and previous occasions which address these issues. It is nothing extraordinary. When important or moderately important positions open up in international organizations of which we are the members, we always work to map the situation, try to understand what our interests might be, and not always necessarily by presenting "our candidate", but by deciding what kind of person we rule out and what kind of person we would like to prefer. So there is nothing unusual about it.

Just like there is nothing unusual in the fact that we always have as a starting point an assumed interest, that if it is possible to help an Estonian citizen to a prominent international position, then of course we always do it. Whether or not it is possible is a question in which the truth will emerge when the process is over. But NATO does not have any formal nomination mechanism for the post of Secretary General.

Has it been decided whether Estonia will make an effort or not on behalf of its candidate?

Estonia always makes an effort. But the ideal candidate is not always necessarily our own citizen. Especially if that person might not pass. We have to see to it that the one who finally takes office is politically like-minded with us as much as possible.

Would Kersti Kaljulaid be the perfect candidate?

The ideal candidate is the one who eventually wins the support of 30 allied nations.

The struggle for the global south.

It is understandable that the only focus of Estonian foreign policy this year has been on the war in Ukraine. However, Vseviov does not see that this has taken away attention from other regions and spheres, because in the end, everything is interconnected.

“Estonia's foreign policy has always been and will probably always remain Europe-centric,” said Vseviov. He emphasized that the issue in Ukraine is not Ukraine, but European security and also the most fundamental norms of international life. “It is therefore an exceptionally relevant question also, for example, in the context of the UN and international law as a whole.”

For example, with countries such as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, Estonia and the West discuss more deeply how to keep the so-called Global South with us in the UN voting. “Of course, our grasp here is much shorter than others. We do not have embassies everywhere in Africa, South America, South Asia,” Vseviov said. “But our advantage is that we have never colonized anyone, and our message could be somewhat more legitimate than the message of some other European powers,” Vseviov hoped.

However, the focus of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is, of course, on resolving the war in a way which leaves intact the territorial integrity of Ukraine and also the basic principles of European security. “There is nothing to be ashamed of here. When there were Russian troops in Estonia, our focus was on getting the Russian troops out. When it was necessary to join NATO and the European Union, our focus was there."