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KYIV — There is war in Donbas to the east, and Russian occupation in Crimea to the south. But on Tuesday, Ukraine celebrated 30 years of independence from the Soviet Union, and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba used the moment to rev up an appeal to the EU.
His message: It’s time to get some guts — confront Russia and welcome new member countries Moscow is menacing.
“The EU needs ambition,” Kuleba said in an interview with POLITICO when asked if Brussels should develop a new grand strategy as a successor to its Eastern Partnership program, an outreach effort toward former Soviet territories initiated in 2009.
“The problem with the European Union is that it’s drowning in its internal fears and problems,” said Kuleba, perched on a velvety armchair in a sitting room at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “And I put fears in the first place because I think this is the factor, it contains EU, and that destroys EU from the inside.”
Kuleba’s point was that in the 21st-century competition of great powers, including China and the U.S., the EU has no choice but to bolster its ranks.
“The EU has to expand to maintain dynamics and to mobilize as many resources as possible in the global struggle that it is taking part in,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter Eastern Partnership 2 or Partnership 3 or Association 1. This is not the idea. The EU should make a very simple message: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, you are part of us. We do not set a deadline but you will be in the EU. And this is a completely different kind of way to address things.”
The suggestion would indeed be an ambitious change of course for the EU, which has struggled with expansion fatigue after rapid growth in Central and Eastern Europe during the 2000s.
Kuleba insisted Brussels should even offer a similar — albeit modified — message of inclusion to Belarus, which has been convulsed in protests since a fraudulent presidential election more than one year ago: “Belarus you are in trouble but you are also historically part of us, so this is the strategy that we have for you and we will implement it.”
Belarus is symptomatic of the EU’s broader shortcomings, according to Kuleba.
“Russia always had a strategy toward Belarus, and the West — not only the EU, but the West as a whole — never had a strategy,” he said. “And this is what happens when you don’t have a strategy. Things collapse.”
Kuleba’s willingness to dish out advice to Brussels reflects a new assertiveness from Ukraine. It has developed partly in response to an agreement by Germany and the U.S. to allow the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The new pipeline would allow Russia to bypass Ukraine in transiting gas to Europe, which some analysts say would make it easier for a full-scale Russian military invasion.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will visit U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington next week, where Ukraine’s continuing opposition to Nord Stream 2 is certain to be high on his agenda.
“The thing is that we will never shut up on Nord Stream 2 — and you can quote it,” Kuleba said Tuesday.
“It’s about money for some and political influence for others, but it’s about the national security of Ukraine,” he elaborated. “And when it comes to national security issues, it doesn’t matter who we are talking to even if we are talking to the best friend, we will stand firm — firm and loud.”
He said Ukraine was especially keen on making sure the EU applies the rules of its Third Energy Package — legislation intended to help the internal energy market function — to Nord Stream 2.
“If the Third [Energy] Package is not applied or not fully applied to Nord Stream 2, I think this will be a huge blow against the EU body of law and EU solidarity, not to mention Ukraine, and Nord Stream,” he said.
In the interview, Kuleba, 40, credited the EU with providing crucial support to the first-ever Crimea Platform Summit, an international conference held in Kyiv on Monday to draw attention to the continuing occupation of the Black Sea peninsula, which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.
“The EU was extremely helpful,” he said. “Crimea Platform was one of the moments the EU should include in its webinars and textbooks as an example of how much you can achieve if you have solidarity of hope.”
Kuleba proclaimed the summit a success, arguing it put the issue of Crimea back on the international agenda. “We took Crimea out of the shadow,” he said.
The summit was attended by delegations from more than 40 nations and concluded with a declaration reiterating the international community’s refusal to recognize Crimea as part of Russia and committing to work to return Crimea to Ukraine.
Still, Kuleba acknowledged some disappointment that certain high-profile leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, did not attend. Merkel visited Kyiv on Sunday and emphasized her support for Ukraine, pledging to prevent Russia from ever using the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as a political weapon against Ukraine.
Ukrainian and European officials familiar with Merkel’s views said that the chancellor did not want to risk provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin by attending the summit. Putin has maintained Russia’s absorption of Crimea is non-negotiable and said that anyone who suggests otherwise is threatening Russia’s security interests.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, issued a statement on Tuesday insisting Russia would never relinquish Crimea.
“The summit participants, mainly NATO countries and some international organizations, [are united] by a common delusion that the Crimean peninsula should be part of the current Ukrainian state and that it can be torn away from the Russian Federation by increasing political and economic pressure on our country,” Zakharova said.
Citing the public referendum that was held in Crimea with tanks and armed soldiers on the street, she added: “The issue of the return of Crimea to the Russian Federation was finally closed in March 2014.”
Kuleba said Ukraine was confident of Merkel’s support but wished she had joined the summit, especially as she is approaching the end of her fourth and final term.
“It would have been a brilliant endpoint of her years of involvement in Ukraine,” he said.
Kuleba said he often wins smiles from EU colleagues by telling them that they have built a benevolent European empire.
“The European Union is the first-ever attempt to build a liberal empire, an empire constructed on … principles of liberalism and freedom,” he said. “This makes this project so unique in the history of humankind.”
But he said that he also warns them of the historic perils of empire-building in Europe.
“In the end, every good empire in this part of the world should split up between eastern and western,” he said. “And this is where they never smile.”