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US ‘elephant in the room’ at Russia-EU summit

US interference in Ukraine’s affairs and the overall EU approach to Kiev’s independence might force Russia to take measures that would damage economic relations with the 28-member bloc, Professor Mark Almond, a historian at Oxford University, told RT.

RT:The leaders managed to cover the most pressing issues during this short summit. Do you think despite the amount of time they had, much was achieved?

Mark Almond: Only the results can show it over time. The basic problem is that there are two issues being discussed here which in some ways are contradictory. One is the huge amount of economic contact and cooperation between Russian and EU countries, particularly between Russia and certain EU countries like Germany; others play a bit lesser role. And then the political dynamics where the EU and the other NATO states, America the elephant in the room in these discussions, are pursuing the kind of strategic policies that really goes to rubbing up Russia the wrong way. So trying to have good economic relations and at the same time playing a game of arm wrestling over the Ukraine, I think is really a way that makes it really difficult to have a positive outcome.

RT:Do you think the EU was right to scale back the meeting? From two days it was cut back to a couple of hours.

MA: Yes, I think, one of the most extraordinary things is the degree to which the EU feels it’s able to start people and yet gets really touchy if there is the slightest hint that these various unelected people like Barroso, Van Rompuy or Catherine Ashton are not treated as if they are democratic dignitaries coming from say, being elected the president of France or whatever. And I think this is unwise of the Europeans because sooner or later, the patience of Russia might snap. After all, we have to ask ourselves, “Who gets more from this relationship?” The Europeans seem to be used to the idea that the Russian side will always take every insult, will always be willing to pick up the bill, if you like, as we see with Ukraine. And it may be that this eventually will go, because one of the striking things at the moment is in this geopolitical conflict, President Putin says Russia is paying money into the funds of Ukraine to benefit the people of Ukraine, whereas the Europeans and the Americans are in practice putting a very much smaller amount of money, tens of millions, into the political class in Ukraine, into politicians and NGOs that support the demonstrators, but not the billions that are needed to pay the pensions to subsidize the electricity of ordinary Ukrainians. It is coming from the Russian taxpayer and I would have thought in Russia this would become a question, “Is this a wise policy?”

Kiev, January 28, 2014 (AFP Photo)

RT:Would you have not expected the spirit of the talks to be more strained over Ukraine – especially considering both sides have been accusing each other of interfering?

MA: Yes, again the issue seems to me, Russia has obviously not interfered. Yes, Russia didn’t want Ukraine to sign the association agreement, because as President Putin pointed out, it would open a flood of EU imports, not just to Ukraine but because of common customs space into Russia itself. The political interference has come from Europe. The Russian economy is in a free trade area with Ukraine. So if you have the free trade with the EU, particularly if it goes one way, European Union states can export to Ukraine and also to Russia, then this is an unbalanced relationship. This I think is what the Russian state side is concerned about.

The EU leaders have also wished to aggregate Ukraine into their bloc. I was watching French state television this afternoon, and its analyst had a nice map showing Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and in the same color Ukraine also, possibly also Georgia and Armenia saying this will give Europe a new sphere further East, making a point that Russia’s capital, Moscow, will be less than 400 kilometers from the border. So there is a geopolitical aspect, but it seems that geopolitics is only being played in Brussels, whereas in Russia it is essentially seen as an economic issue. Of course it is an economic issue, but I’m not sure you can have a level playing field when one side is playing geopolitics and the other is playing trade negotiations, energy negotiations and so on.

RT:Do you think we could see the two sides compromising over a future way of doing business together over Ukraine?

MA: Well, it is possible, I think a rational EU policy would be to say that Ukraine is a big country, it happens to lie between the two blocs if you like, Russia and the EU. It is an expensive country to try to rescue because it has a serious economic problem, so it would make sense to pursue a cooperative approach, partly because of the trade links between Ukraine and Russia, but also because of Ukraine acting as an energy hub and energy corridor for the Europeans. That said, the elephant in the room in discussions between Europe and Russia is the United States. And the US is much less economically involved in this relationship. It does not have the energy dependency, as President Putin said 27 percent of the energy of Europe is coming from Russia. [The US] does not have economic interests in Russia, not nearly to the same extent as countries like Germany or even Britain. And so the Americans can play geopolitics and lean on their friends in Brussels to play geopolitics in way that complicates, and I think actually confuses and makes a mess of the potentially mutually beneficial relations between Russia and EU countries, it is also mutually beneficial for the third parties like Ukraine between them.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.