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Columbia Business Monthly

‘We Will Bring Him to His Knees’ EU Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis Talks About World Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Jul 01, 2022 04:53PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker

On a recent trip to South Carolina, Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s ambassador to the United States, praised the strong ties between the U.S. and the EU, and lauded South Carolina for its strong economy.

“We are stronger together,” Lambrinidis said at a May 26 dinner sponsored by the European American Chamber of Commerce - Carolinas, and he discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine at length.

The world community has united against Vladimir Putin, making it less likely that Putin will win the Ukraine war, Lambrinidis told the audience at the Westin Poinsett Hotel.

Lambrinidis, who has been ambassador since 2019, previously served as EU Special Representative for Human Rights and as Foreign Affairs Minister of Greece. 

Lambrinidis also spoke of the Ukraine situation and the global community’s response against Putin in a phone interview the week after the event.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What are the most hopeful things you’ve seen in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Lambrinidis: Without a doubt, the trans-Atlantic unity of the Americans and Europeans in facing Putin, which is manifest in a number of different ways. The economic sanctions that are crippling his economy as we speak, but will be even harsher in the medium term, in terms of incapacitating his ability to diversify that economy away from fossil fuels and towards a more advanced high-tech future. Those sanctions were not at all a given. In terms of what Mr. Putin was calculating, I’m sure he was betting on having at least one EU member state, or two, disagreeing on them. Because in Europe … you don’t just take the signature of one president, as in the U.S., President Biden, to impose sanctions. You need the signatures of 27 heads of state or 27 dependent European Union countries. You need unanimity to be able to impose sanctions. And those massive sanctions against Russia covering everything, and now increasingly, its energy imports to Europe, I think makes it most hopeful. 

Equally hopeful, I am, about the unity that NATO showed, the European Union itself showed, in the military response to Putin. For the first time in our history, from the European Union budget, this was inconceivable a few years back, even a year back. We have financed, with 2 billion Euros, more than $2 billion, the capacity of our member states to transfer lethal weapons to the Ukrainians. 

And if you like, a third major positive surprise for me has been how the Ukrainians have been able to use that indispensable aid from the EU and the US to fight back to upend Putin’s plans to take over the country in a few days, to take over Kyiv, to topple the Ukrainian government, effectively to wipe Ukraine off the map. He has failed continuously on this, and that’s because of what we have done together. 

And the final thing … is the way that we dealt with the broader energy issue. People don’t know that because of our proximity to Russia, the European countries and the European Union is much more entangled economically with Russia, for obvious reasons, than the United States is. A very large number of our imports in natural gas and oil in all the member states, come from Russia, historically and over decades, even out of the Soviet Union. And our decision to cut entirely coal imports from Russia and just now, to cut 90 percent of all oil imports from Russia by the end of the year, is a hugely important hit to Putin’s ability to keep financing his war. But it’s also a hugely important shift of the EU to two things: A. much more reliable Allied suppliers of gas and oil, and that puts the United States at the top of the map, and B. massive, front-loaded investments in what is the EU’s own homegrown energy, which is renewable energy. 

… This is a chess game. You need to be patient, you need to be resilient. Putin is hoping that he will be more patient than we are, that we will exhaust our capacity to be united against him in this war as it drags on. … The fact is, he will fail. We are united against him in this. We will not tire, and we will bring him to his knees.

Q. What, in your opinion, will it take to get Russia out of Ukraine?

A. One issue is what happens immediately in the war in Ukraine. The second question is, how do we ensure that Russia ends this war in a way that it is massively diminished in its capacity to be a threat in the future, either in Ukraine or anywhere else. The immediate issue of the war right now is one that we need to be supporting Ukraine militarily so it is strong on the battlefield, so it can eventually be strong on the negotiating table. Because any war, at the end of the day, ends certainly with a cease-fire and then a negotiation, but Mr. Putin cannot be in a position that he can force his conditions and benefit from this war against the Ukrainians. So the emphasis on the American side and the European side together, is to keep the Ukrainians strong and resilient in their fight against Russia, and to change the calculus of Mr. Putin dramatically as to what is beneficial for him in this actual war.

The second, broader question, is, are sanctions really biting? (We must ensure that Russia) pays dearly for this adventure in decades to come. That it will never be in this position to be the threat that it has been up to now, to try to kill democracy in an independent country, to try to kill the right of people to self-determination, and that is what long-term economic pressure is going to achieve. 

Q. As a diplomat, what do you find most challenging in navigating this crisis?

A. What I have found extremely easy is to promote the cooperation of (the world community), which is the  most important piece of this puzzle. The United States has been impressed deeply, not just by European leadership and sanctions against Russia, at the highest and most massive and unified level, but also by our indication of our capacity to be … a major defense player in our neighborhood and in the world. And that has opened avenues of cooperation in every possible field imaginable, including, by the way, in trade and technology discussions we’re having with the United States. We launched a trade and technology council, a dedicated American-European discussion on setting the rules of the road for the 21st-century economy, to enrich our people, our own economies, but also to ensure that fairness (and) open-market conditions exist in the rest of the world.

We also did it to ensure that new technology of the future reflects open, human-centric, human rights-respecting values and not the values of authoritarians. 

… The thing that keeps me up at night on this is not something that’s directly in my portfolio; it’s to ensure that we maintain the focus of the rest of the world on the atrocities that Russia is committing, and to ensure that we can develop an international coalition that will, not just now but in the longer term, rally around the United Nations charter, which Russia is trying to tear up, at the same time it is trying to literally kill Ukrainians and Ukraine on the ground. And that is a more difficult fight because Russia’s war is creating some real emergencies and urgencies around the world, the biggest one of which is food security.

… Because of a deliberate effort from Russia to bomb wheat silos and to bomb tractors and agricultural fields and to make Ukraine’s ability to export by blocking Odessa and other ports impossible, food supply is a real issue, especially in countries in Africa that were relying a lot on Ukrainian and Russian supplies. And there is a concerted disinformation campaign by Russia and China and others to convince them that this is happening somehow because of sanctions that the US and the EU and other countries are imposing, not because of Russia’s aggression. That is as big of a lie as any lie that has been circulating out there. But we have to keep in mind – Americans and Europeans – that the rest of the world doesn’t always look at things the way that we look at them. So we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of

us to ensure that we use diplomacy around the world to isolate Russia even further. 

Q. Global terrorism hasn’t been as much of a presence in the news since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but what are the biggest threats currently?

A. Well, we’re certainly all looking at Afghanistan and the situation there and how it’s developing. We’re looking at Africa and the importance of countering terrorism in Africa, certainly, because I see that Al-Qaeda has not gone away, but also other terrorist groups. We’re also looking at domestic terrorism in our societies, and we should, and radicalization and extremism. 

… Looking at the root causes of terrorism and the ways to counter them on the field – not just with weapons, which are necessary – but in a sense to root them out, you cannot ignore the tremendous importance of Americans and Europeans in intelligent ways being able to support countries around the world to promote rights. 

… When I was going around the world talking to countries where terrorism was a big issue and where governments very often were violating human rights … they would say, ‘Why are you poisoning the well of our relationships here? We are fighting terrorists; that’s the important thing. Why are you raising luxury issues such as human rights?’ And I would answer that question with another question. I would ask, ‘What is so scary about smart girls?’ I would say, ‘Why did Boko Haram in Nigeria … abduct 300 girls from school back in 2014 instead of bombing one more army barracks, which they’re good at? Why did terrorists in Pakistan try to kill Malala Yousafzai a few years back?’

… Why are terrorists so scared of smart girls? And the answer to me is very clear. They’re scared because smart girls become educated girls, and educated girls become empowered women, and empowered women change entirely the bounds of power in any society. And the last thing the terrorists want is empowered societies. They want societies (to be) dysfunctional, weak, with big black holes of power they can fill in with their violence and hatred.