The EU Response to the War on Ukraine: A Conversation With Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney

Monday, March 7, 2022
REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defense, Ireland


Host, Ayman, MSNBC

Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defense Simon Coveney discusses the further invasion of Ukraine, the actions that Ireland and the European Union have taken in response to the crisis, and how countries around the world can assist the Ukrainian people.


MOHYELDIN: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us this evening. It’s a great pleasure to have all of you with us here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And as I understand it, this is the first event that we get to host in person since December, so we’re very honored to have the minister here to embark on this. Hopefully, it will be a very important and very timely conversation given everything that is happening in Europe. I’d like to introduce right now the minister of foreign affairs as well as the minister of defense from Ireland, Mr. Simon Coveney. Mr. Coveney, you have the floor for a few minutes and then we’ll take it from there. Thank you.

COVENEY: Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you for being here. Thursday, the 24th of February 2022 is a day that will live in infamy. In the early hours of the morning, Russian forces began a large-scale assault on the sovereign nation of Ukraine involving invasion by land, air, and sea. In Kyiv, Kherson, and Kharkiv in the past week, we’ve seen indiscriminate targeting of civilians, the probable use of cluster munitions, attacks on nuclear facilities, and dangerous nuclear rhetoric. Across our screens in real time, we’ve watched terrified children huddle in makeshift bunkers. We’ve seen pale, disbelieving faces of Ukrainian pensioners forced out of their homes, and the stoic dignity of Ukrainian women and men in the face of sustained shelling. We’ve seen the immeasurable courage of President Zelensky in the face of this onslaught, and his people have responded to his leadership.

Through his decision to launch a further invasion, President Putin has blatantly violated the core principles of international law and the U.N. Charter. His actions have horrified and disgusted so many people around the world.

Today I’ve been asked to discuss the EU’s response. As the situation escalated in recent months, the EU pursued all means to engage with President Putin to urge him to step back from threatened war. EU leaders—particularly from France and Germany, both bilaterally and through what’s called the Normandy Format—made every diplomatic effort to de-escalate the situation. At the same time, the EU was clear that further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine would result in massive cost for Russia, and that is exactly what has happened.

In my twenty-four years in politics, I have never seen EU member states as unified and with as much resolve as I see them today in support of Ukraine. In the space of just over a week we have imposed three rounds of sanctions against Russia, hitting the web of companies, financial institutions, state institutions and agencies, oligarchs, government members, and media interests that surround President Putin and enable the corruption and violence that we’ve seen on such naked display in recent days. The EU has committed over a billion euros to support Ukraine. And through the new European Peace Facility, the EU has agreed a package of half-a-billion euros’ worth of support for Ukraine’s military.

The EU has worked closely with the U.S. and other partners to ensure maximum unity and impact of sanctions. On Friday I was joined by other EU foreign ministers, but we were also joined by Ukraine’s foreign minister, the U.S. secretary of state, the U.K. foreign secretary, and the Canadian foreign minister to underline the unity of action that we are all working on together.

We’ve put in place support for those fleeing the war in Europe, predominantly women and children.

In Ireland, we suspended all visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens. The Irish public are literally opening their homes to refugees.

On Friday the EU agreed a temporary protection mechanism for people fleeing the war in Ukraine. This provides immediate and collective protection to those displaced, allowing access to residency, to the labor market, to health care, to housing, and to education. Essentially, what the EU has done here is they have made Ukrainian citizens EU citizens for those who are fleeing the war.

Here in New York, in Geneva, in Brussels, and in Vienna, Ireland continues to call on Russia to cease fire, to uphold international law, to protect civilians, and to allow unhindered humanitarian access. As a member of the Security Council, we supported the draft resolution condemning the offensive as a blatant violation of the Charter. When the resolution was vetoed by Russia, we moved quickly to ensure that the 193 members could speak on the issue in an extraordinary session of the General Assembly. U.N. member states firmly rejected Russia’s naked aggression. In fact, just four other countries joined Russia in opposing the resolution: Syria, Belarus, North Korea, and Eritrea. Enough said.

Today the Security Council convened for an urgent discussion on the humanitarian situation. This war has been waging with little or no regard for the safety of civilians. In fact, it’s clear that at times the Russian military have actively targeted civilian areas. Over 1.7 million people have become international refugees, most of them traveling into Poland but other EU countries, as well as Moldova, as well. Twelve million people are in need of assistance, and untold numbers have been killed and injured.

The creation of humanitarian corridors has been called for, and I want to underline a vital point which has been clearly set out by the ICRC. Whatever is agreed or not agreed on humanitarian corridors or other measures, civilian and civilian infrastructure must be protected. This goes for both those who choose to leave and those who choose to remain. This is a core obligation under international humanitarian law.

At the Human Rights Council, we supported the establishment of a commission of inquiry to hold Russia to account. The International Criminal Court prosecutor, Karim Khan, has stated that there is a reasonable basis to believe that both alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Ukraine in the last week. He will open an investigation. And Ireland is one of thirty-nine states to support a referral of the matter to the ICC to help to expedite the investigation.

It's important that I’m clear on one point: Our focus for blame is not at the Russian people. In fact, many, many Russians do not want this war and openly criticize it. Many have been deeply courageous in protesting against military aggression across Russian cities, and we encourage them to continue to do so to help us all bring an end to this madness at the heart of Europe, a continent that should surely have learnt its lesson from the last century.

A week from now, our taoiseach will call on President Biden in the White House to mark St. Patrick’s Day. He will affirm Ireland’s shared commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and to our support for the Ukrainian people.

These are dark days for Europe’s history, but we find hope in the resilience of the brave people of Ukraine and in our collective determination to support them. There is no justification for this war. It must stop. Our determination and resolve to act collectively to protect Ukraine and to ensure a high cost for Russia’s continued war must also, though, be matched by our collective focus on exploring diplomatic initiatives to persuade Russia to change course even at this late stage to end the killing and to replace war with dialogue and negotiation. Anything else is failure.

Thank you very much and I look forward to your questions.

MOHYELDIN: Thank you so much, Mr. Minister.

You’ve given us a lot to consider here as we get this conversation ongoing, and I thought maybe one place that we could start is the big picture in terms of where the European Union stands right now. You’ve talked about the three rounds of lightning-quick sanctions that have made their way through. Can you talk to us about where you see the next round of sanctions going? Will there be a push, as is growing in this country, to ban Russian oil and gas from the European Union?

COVENEY: Well, first of all, on the sanctions that have already been put in place, I mean, I think a lot of people look across the Atlantic at the EU as this union of countries that find it hard to make decisions, particularly on foreign policy, and certainly find it hard to make decisions quickly, and so I think the response to the war in Ukraine has surprised a lot of people, including, I believe, people in the Kremlin in terms of the pace at which the European Union has made decisions and also the scale of those decisions. So, you know, in literally five days, we had three emergency sessions of the Foreign Affairs Council passing really significant sanctions each time and ratcheting up the pressure and the extent of those each time. I think there’s a big focus now on ensuring that they bed in and actually bite, but I also expect that there will be an appetite for a fourth round of sanctions, probably not for a few days, but—and that will certainly include, I think, issues like whether or not Russian ships will be allowed into EU ports, it will extend the number of people on a travel ban and asset-freeze list, it will probably extend the number of banks that will be excluded from the SWIFT money-transfer system, and it will also look at the importation of more products from Russia.

There are countries, particularly on the eastern side of the European Union, that are really extraordinarily reliant on gas in particular but also oil from Russia. I believe there’s an appetite to look at that, but I think it’s really important that the EU maintains unity, and so that is a debate that I think will—well, is taking place right now, and I think some of those products, whether it’s timber, steel, oil, coal, some of those products may well be part of an import ban, but that’s not agreed yet and I think it will be the end of the week before there’s a new round of sanctions likely on the table.

MOHYELDIN: Were you surprised that Russia went ahead with this invasion? The view from this side of the Atlantic and that was the Americans have presented the case and the evidence and the intelligence that Russia was building this up; there was some skepticism, even in this country, whether or not Russia would ultimately do it. But from your vantage point from Europe, were Europeans as well surprised or convinced that this was going to happen?

COVENEY: I think we were surprised at the extent of what happened. So I think the expectation—certainly the expectation from those that I spoke to was that Russia would move troops into Luhansk and Donetsk and they would effectively look to have a decisive military victory in the eastern part of Ukraine and then would push west, but no one was quite sure how far they would push. I think in Ukraine, as well, that was the expectation. That’s how they had set up their defense systems militarily, in terms of the expectation that that push would come. You are right. Washington had been predicting for a number of days before it happened, supported by the U.K. as well, supporting the view that there would be a full-scale invasion. But within Europe, I think there was an expectation that it wouldn’t scale up that quickly. And that was on the back of conversations, by the way, lengthy conversations, that European leaders had in Moscow, you know, whether it was President Macron, Chancellor Scholz.

You know, the view was that tension was building but that we wouldn’t see a full-scale invasion of the whole country from multiple—despite the fact that the military buildup looked like that was possible. But once it happened, I think the EU responded very, very quickly, and I think if you look at the extent of the sanctions that have been agreed, on the EU side they are probably more far-reaching than even in the U.S. or the U.K., certainly in terms of the numbers of people targeted around asset freezes and travel bans. But look, as I said when I was speaking earlier, the partnership, the transatlantic partnership on this issue, or the sort of Euro-Atlantic partnership, if you want to call it that, really has pulled together incredibly quickly, and this administration in Washington, I think, has been very positive on that and the U.K. and Canada, as well, have been very positive. So I think that’s going to continue. I think this war is going to change global politics. It’s already—


COVENEY: Well, it’s already changing politics in Europe, so, you know, Germany literally overnight changed their foreign policy in terms of security and defense. They announced an increase in expenditure of I think 1.2 billion euros overnight. If you look at countries like Sweden and Finland—you know, traditionally non-aligned, non-NATO members states without a majority popular support for NATO membership. In both cases now, I think, we’re seeing a very different view on that and I think we’re likely to see moves from both of those countries. And even in a country like Ireland, where, you know, we’re not a member of NATO, we have this traditional stance of neutrality, which is essentially military non-alignment. You know, I mean, neutrality doesn’t mean you don’t get involved in things. It just means you decide when you get involved in things, as opposed to being required to get involved because of an alliance that you signed up for, and that’s been a sort of centerpiece of Irish foreign policy for many, many decades.

MOHYELDIN: Is there a desire to have Ireland join NATO in the wake of this? Are the politics inside Ireland changing that some are saying it’s time?

COVENEY: Well, certainly the politics in Ireland is changing common security and defense from a European Union perspective. I mean, we do partner with NATO, by the way. I mean, you know, we’ve been involved in demining programs in Afghanistan, so we choose to partner with NATO on certain projects that are about conflict resolution, post-conflict management, peacekeeping missions, that kind of thing. I think certainly, you know, the approach that Ireland has taken, which has been based on the Irish public believing that by being neutral Ireland can get along with everybody and can be sort of a broker in conflict situations, can do things that perhaps NATO member states can’t do because they’re seen as partisan on certain issues. I think people are now questioning whether Ireland’s own security is as stable as perhaps we thought it was because of this assumption we’re on the western shores of the European Union, outside of the U.K., in the mid-Atlantic, and we have no perceived threats or enemies because Ireland doesn’t have a colonial history or a history of involvement in wars or conflict, apart from our own—(laughter)—which was problematic enough. But I think now—it’s interesting because I’m a foreign minister as well as defense minister. We’ve just done a pretty significant piece of work on our own defense capacity in Ireland over the last thirteen months. We’ve got an independent commission to look at Ireland’s defense capacity, and undoubtedly the recommendations out of that are to significantly increase, in percentage terms, our defense expenditure and I think we—I’ll be bringing recommendations to the Irish government on that in the next few months. And certainly what’s happening in Ukraine now I think reinforces the need for that.

So yes, we will, I think, be much more open to collective defense. I still think we’re probably not in the space of NATO membership, but I think collective EU defense and increased partnership with NATO and with other EU countries through the structures that are already there, by the way, but I think there’ll be an increased appetite to do that and to spend more resources on ensuring that core defense issues and capacity around that are responded to appropriately. In areas like cyber, for example—you know, Ireland has just had—in the last year we had a pretty severe cyberattack on our health system in the midst of the COVID pandemic. It cost us about 130 million euros to resolve. It came from east of Europe.

MOHYELDIN: That’s pretty general. Do you have anything more specific you can—
COVENEY: I don’t want to be too specific on that on the record, but, you know, I think it has that and a whole range of the other things that have unfolded now I think have shaken people into realizing that actually being neutral does not mean being secure and stable and safe, you know. And we’re not neutral politically. We are—you know, we are pro-the European Union and its values system and we’ve helped to build that. We’re pro-democracy. We’re pro-international law. We’re pro-women’s rights. We’re pro-, you know, diversity. And so Irish neutrality effectively is non-alignment militarily, as opposed to, as I say, not having an opinion on things. As most people in the audience will know, Irish people tend to have very strong opinions on lots of things. And we have in the context of Ukraine, I can assure you, a very strong view. And we are—and this has been an interesting issue of debate in Ireland.

So the European Union has a facility called the European Peace Facility and that is effectively a collective funding mechanism that can make interventions in conflict situations in different parts of the world, and this is the first time it’s been used and we were very much involved in designing and shaping that fund, and there are two funds effectively in the one initiative. One is for lethal weapons, in terms of equipping a country with lethal weapons, and the other is non-lethal weapons, and countries can choose if they want to be part of one or the other or both. And so in this half-a-billion-euro support, which is military support for the Ukrainian military in this war, Ireland has chosen to fund the non-lethal-weapons element of that, but it’s still making the exact same financial contribution of France or Germany or Spain or any of the other EU countries in percentage terms. Our contribution to that fund is proportionate for our population, which is about 2 percent, so we’re contributing about 10 million euros of the half a billion, and that will be things like helmets, flak jackets, medical kits, fuel, and a whole range of other things—

MOHYELDIN: Much-needed supplies.

COVENEY: —that’s badly needed, yeah.

MOHYELDIN: Can I ask one aspect of the sanctions which has recently come up that involves Ireland uniquely, which is the issue of aircraft? A lot—as I understand it, a lot of the Russian aircraft that have now been sanctioned and denied access to airspace both in the U.S. and the European Union, are actually Irish companies that are being leased by Aeroflot and other Russian airlines, and that puts you in a precarious situation because, as I understand it, the Russians are not giving back the airplanes and they’re probably not going to be making the payments on those airplanes, and that is going to be an economic hit to your country and your companies.

COVENEY: It is. That’s accurate. So Ireland is one of the world’s largest aircraft-leasing hubs so it’s a big part of our financial services sector in Dublin. We have some of the biggest aircraft-leasing companies in the world and we lease—I think the figure is about 460, 470 planes into Russia, some of them to private airlines and some of them to state airlines. The problem, of course, with aircraft leasing on the sanctions list is that those leases end and so the way in which Russia has responded to that is they’ve said, well, the leases may be ending but we’re holding onto the planes, right, because normally what would happen when a lease ends is that the lease company repossesses the plane, but there is no capacity to go into Russia and repossess a plane. Some of the firms have been trying to repossess planes in different parts of the world, in different airports where they land on the way back to Russia, but that hasn’t proven easy. And so I suspect there’s going to be a big insurance claim on the basis of theft of airlines, which is what’s happening here, except it’s a state that’s stealing the aircraft, as opposed to a company. So yeah, this will unfold in the coming weeks and months, but I suspect it will be a very expensive part of the sanction package from an Irish perspective. In fact, I know it will be, knowing some of the companies concerned. But we’ll work through it.

Like, sanctions are not without costs, for the European Union in particular, and often that’s not maybe fully appreciated here. You know, if the EU moves ahead and no longer purchases coal or oil, for example, from Russia, that has an enormous consequence and cost within the European Union. It’s a cost that we may well be willing to take, but it is a big cost, and from an Irish perspective, the aircraft-leasing element of the sanction is very impactful on the Irish financial services sector, but I think it’s a price that’s necessary, and other EU countries will be impacted by other sanctions heavily as well. But I think if these sanctions don’t bite and if we’re not willing to take some of that pain, then I think the message isn’t going to impact in the way that it needs to in Moscow, and that’s what I mean when I say I’ve never seen such resolve in the European Union. So, for example, any of you who follow EU politics will know that probably the most decisive issue in the European Union is migration. You just cannot get agreement on anything to do with migration in the European Union. Yes, the European Union has now collectively agreed to accept X number of people fleeing Ukraine. There is no limit to it. There’s already been 1.7 million and 1.5 million of those have come into EU countries, predominantly Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, because they’re the four EU countries that border Ukraine. Moldova, of course, has been hugely impacted as well. But about a million of that 1.7 have come into Poland and they are now, then, going to move to other EU countries and we’ve effectively agreed a burden-sharing approach, and all of those Ukrainians who come into the EU will effectively be treated as EU citizens. I mean, they won’t get a vote but they’ll certainly, in terms of all the social support—

MOHYELDIN: Health care, education, jobs—

COVENEY: Health care, education. So we’re planning in Ireland now for somewhere between—we just don’t know, honestly, but, you know, if you take a million people coming into the EU, for example, Ireland’s allocation key would normally be about 2 percent, so that’s twenty thousand people. And if this war continues for weeks to come, we could be looking at three, four, five million people. We just don’t know. So we are planning for that in terms of housing needs, health care needs, education, and, you know, for a country of five million people, you know, twenty, forty, sixty thousand refugees has a big impact. You now, it’s the size of our small cities, you know?

MOHYELDIN: We’re going to open it up to the members in just a minute. I just have one quick question and it’s more about in your capacity as the minister of defense. How do you evaluate the battlefield right now? There’s a debate not so much involving NATO but just generally within the European security about whether or not European Union countries should do more in terms of provide weapons to Ukraine. I’m curious to get your thoughts on that. Should countries like Poland and others transfer the fighter jets that they have in their stock to Ukraine?

COVENEY: Yeah, I mean, this is a really difficult debate and I think Ireland also needs to be honest in this debate because, to date, we have not been willing to supply or fund lethal weapons into Ukraine. We have been willing to fund and supply non-lethal equipment, military equipment into Ukraine, but I think it would be a bit much for Ireland to be calling other countries to provide fighter jets while we say we’re not willing to provide lethal weapons, even though we are contributing to the military effort. So, I mean, I think there’s a genuine concern that if the EU or if NATO collectively tries to impose a no-fly zone, which, of course, the Ukrainians desperately want us to do, and understandably so in terms of saving lives, but I think it’s pretty clear that that would escalate this conflict beyond the borders of Ukraine, which creates a whole new series of challenges that who knows where it will end? I think that is the fear. So I haven’t been in the NATO meetings, but I’ve spoken to a lot of the NATO ministers and so I think the NATO concern is the same as the concern within the European Union. If you start providing Russian-built fighter jets that some of the countries in the eastern side of the European Union still have into Ukraine, you are really getting involved in the conflict with Russia in a much more provocative way that I think may well extend this conflict beyond the borders of Ukraine, and I just think that’s a—the political decision on that has been that that’s not a wise thing to do right now, although there are some who strongly advocate for it within the European Union, because of the extent of the solidarity with Ukraine and the brutality, quite frankly, of the Russian approach to this conflict.

You know, this is, in some ways, the first war that’s unfolding on social media, you know, and it’s in the heart of Europe as well so people can actually see what’s happening in terms of, you know, large apartment complexes being destroyed, children huddling together in makeshift bomb shelters and basements of buildings and hospitals and so on—you know, maternity wards in hospitals being shelled. Whether it’s deliberately or by accident doesn’t really matter. It’s still happening. And so, you know, the solidarity and the anger in Europe is really, really strong here and the will to help the Ukrainian effort, which has been a heroic effort, actually, in terms of resisting Russian military onslaught is very, very strong.

But as of yet, it hasn’t resulted in fighter jets being supplied into Ukraine. But, certainly, it has resulted in a lot of other military materiel in terms of anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, which, of course, have been very effective.

MOHYELDIN: Do you believe Russia is committing war crimes, based on what you have seen and heard?

COVENEY: Yes, I do. But that’s not for me to decide. It’s for the International Criminal Court to decide. Of course, not every country supports the International Criminal Court, including the—

MOHYELDIN: Include two—

COVENEY: —land of the free, but—which I think is regrettable, to put it mildly, and in particular, the previous administration’s targeting of the ICC, you know, was pretty shocking for—you know, for those of us who sort of believe in the need for the role of the ICC in terms of holding state and nonstate actors to account.

But, yeah, and it’s not just the ICC. There are other mechanisms as well, of course. But I think it’s pretty clear, certainly, for me in terms of the rules of war and conflict, you know, there is an obligation—a legal obligation—under the Conventions to protect civilians, not to target them and, I mean, I don’t think there’s any doubt that civilians have been deliberately targeted on the outskirts of a number of cities. And that’s not just, you know, missiles that have strayed away from their targets and so on. I think it’s pretty clear.

There’s also been—I mean, I may be proven wrong—I hope I’m proven wrong—but it seems to me that we’ve seen the use of cluster munitions in built-up areas in Kharkiv in particular. That is also a breach of international law and humanitarian law.

So, you know, I think the focus for now has to be on ending this conflict and finding a way to do it by whatever means we can and that is intensive diplomacy, if Russia is willing to engage, and very strong consequences for the continuation of the war in terms of ratcheting up sanctions as a deterrent to continuing to pursue this current strategy.

But, in time, accountability is really important, and if a continent like Europe can’t provide for accountability and an absence of impunity in conflict, well, then what kind of a message does that send to other parts of the world?

So, yeah, I think there will be a very aggressive pursuit of that agenda when this war is over. But I think the focus for now has to be saving lives, humanitarian supports, and, most importantly, trying to find a way to persuade the Kremlin to change course because this is madness. Everybody is losing.

I think it’s a huge miscalculation by Russia both militarily and politically. I think they’ve underestimated the strength of feeling and resolve in the so-called Western world and I think they probably also underestimated the Ukrainian people as well, and how the international community can provide a basis for pullback, I think, is really what we need to be thinking about because, you know, this is not going to be won by humiliating Russia.

There’s got to be a settlement here or a basis for dialogue and negotiation, which may take some time to replace conflict and war, and that has got to allow space for a respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and it’s got to allow for the Ukrainian people to choose their own destiny in the future in terms of the kind of economic and political model that they want to follow.

It’s got to also, though, find a way of responding to the reality that Russia is not going to stop a war here on the basis of being seen to be defeated, in my view.

So these are difficult issues. Thus—

MOHYELDIN: You, certainly, have your hands full as well. (Laughs.)

COVENEY: Exactly. Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, Ireland is a small player in these things, but we—

MOHYELDIN: But an important one.

COVENEY: An important one. I mean, we happen to be on the Security Council at the moment.

MOHYELDIN: Exactly, yeah.

COVENEY: We happen to be on the board of the IEA at the moment, you know, in terms of the nuclear concerns, which we haven’t really touched on. And, of course, you know, we’re a very active voice within the European Union and our continent is, literally, changing before our eyes in terms of political perspectives.

So it’s an absolutely fascinating as well as tragic time to be a foreign minister, but, yeah, it certainly is history unfolding by the day.

MOHYELDIN: Let’s open it up to our members. We’re going to take questions from our audience here as well as virtually and we have some questions virtually. We’ll start in our back and work—here. Go ahead.

Q: Thank you so much. Seema Mody, correspondent at CNBC.

Minister, I’m wondering, when it comes to the appetite for a fourth round of sanctions—you mentioned oil—and, as you say, the economic effects on the EU could be dire. I’m just curious the types of discussions, the engagement you’re having, with oil-producing nations like the Saudis, the Iranians.

Can you fill us in on those types of conversations to provide—to make up for the supply if the EU moves forward with sanctions that take aim at Russians’ oil?

COVENEY: Yeah. So, certainly, there are very direct conversations taking place between the U.S. and the EU at the moment in terms of how we can coordinate together to mitigate against the impact of sanctions generally but, certainly, should sanctions be scaled up to include coal, gas, oil, how that could—how they—you know, the blow of that could be blunt—you know, dulled somewhat in terms of the impact on the EU, and I think those conversations are likely to continue.

As I say, I don’t think we’ve got—I may be proven wrong on this, but I don’t think we’ll see a fourth round of sanctions for at least another few days and I don’t think we’re likely to see the next round of sanctions banning all energy product from Russia. But it may well involve some, and I don’t really want to go beyond that for now, if that’s OK.

But, certainly, there are—there are some countries—less so Ireland but there are some countries in the European Union that are hugely reliant on supply coming from Russia. I think the figures for gas are—just under 50 percent of all gas coming into the EU is from Russia.

I think when you look at solid fuels it’s just under that. A lot of coal comes from Russia, and then oil is slightly less but still—is still quite a significant figure. So, yes, there is a—there’s a lot of planning for how we’d mitigate against the loss of those supplies and how we’d manage that because, don’t forget, all these choices are not in the hands of the European Union or the U.S. because Russia may decide themselves to introduce counter sanctions.

That hasn’t happened yet but it could easily happen. So we need to be very much live to that and we are actively planning for alternative sources of supply and, you know, I think we will—we’ll see developments on that, certainly, over the next ten days or so.

MOHYELDIN: We’re going to take a virtual question now from one of our members online. Go ahead.

OPERATOR: Our next virtual question will be from Hani Findakly.

Q: Thank you very much, and thank you, Minister, for a very good and clear presentation.

My question is about sanctions. As you mentioned, it took a few days to impose these punitive sanctions. But sanctions tend to be sticky, historically. I’d just note that the last set of sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1991 just came off last month. So it takes quite a bit of time to undo the sanctions, and President Putin declared that these sanctions is a form of economic warfare, which I think it is.

So my question is, how does it end? Is there a deal out there that offers some kind of quid pro quo for Russian to, say, withdraw or do something in return for a quick end to the sanctions so that there will be some kind of a face-saving—face-saving deal that could end the conflict a little bit faster and reduce the cost to everybody?

MOHYELDIN: Thank you very much.

COVENEY: Well, I mean, I think it’s important to say that the sanctions are a reaction to Russian aggression. So the West, if you want to call it that—this sort of alliance between the European Union, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Japan, Australia, and New Zealand—that sort of group of countries that, effectively, have a very similar, you know, approach to governance and democracy and so on, you know, there is a very strong strength of feeling that we need to do as much as we possibly can to try to bring this conflict to an end as quickly as possible and that’s why the European Union has never, you know, including, you know, Iraq and Iran pre-JCPOA and so on, have never put a package of sanctions in place like this. I mean, it goes way beyond where the European Union has ever been at before.

So, you know, I think, what this is about is trying to send a very strong signal to the Kremlin that sanctions can be powerful as a deterrent and because there isn’t a willingness to, essentially, respond militarily to Russian aggression, apart from assisting the Ukrainian military, then this is, essentially, the next most powerful tool we have and we are going to deploy it because of the strength of feeling in terms of what’s happened.

And, you know, I, honestly, don’t know how these sanctions will be unwound. But the starting point for that conversation has got to be a ceasefire, and I think the sanctions will actually continue to intensify in terms of new waves—a fourth wave, a fifth wave, a sixth wave—if necessary until that ceasefire comes about because the public reaction, particularly in Europe, has just been quite extraordinary—you know, mass rallies in capital cities around Europe for Ukraine.

MOHYELDIN: Unprecedented.

COVENEY: It’s unprecedented, and I think the pressure on governments to do more and more and more if this war doesn’t end is going to mean tighter and tighter sanctions, even if that means European countries suffering under those sanctions.

So I think the political view was that the Kremlin needed to understand the strength of feeling in Europe and how far we were willing to go and, of course, I think the impact in Russia now of those sanctions will really start to bite as the weeks pass.

Because don’t forget, Russia is a superpower militarily but it’s not a superpower economically. Like, the Russian economy is a similar size to the German economy. It’s a big economy but, you know, it can’t easily survive under these current conditions.

MOHYELDIN: Although some would question if it’s a military superpower, now, after this particular war with the way it’s conducted the military, I think a lot of military analysts, certainly, those that I’ve interviewed on my program have cast a lot of doubt about Russian military capabilities.

COVENEY: Yeah. Although I’d be careful there. I mean, you know, there are things that Russia could do in Ukraine that they haven’t done and we need to make sure that they don’t do in terms of some of the weapons that they could deploy. Some of the weapons they’ve already deployed are pretty gruesome. But, you know, I think we need to be careful with that language, I have to say.

I mean, Russia is a military superpower. We’ve seen what they’ve managed to do in Syria. They changed the direction of that war, you know, and it’s easy, I think, to find examples of mistakes that countries have made. You know, United States leaving Afghanistan, you know, for a lot of people raised all sorts of questions.

But does it really raise the question as to whether the U.S. is a military superpower? Of course not. But it’s a circumstance that creates failure sometimes even for a country that has a military the size of Russia’s. And I think that there have been military miscalculations here as well as political ones, as I said earlier, and Russia now finds itself in a—I think, in a very bad place, and I think the real challenge for the international community is how do we create an escape route here that can allow them to choose peace and a ceasefire.

And it’s not easy to talk about that internationally because, you know, what’s fashionable at the moment is to sort of beat up on Russia, to strengthen the sanctions, to call out the outrage, and all of that is absolutely legitimate. But, ultimately, the end goal has got to be a ceasefire here and a respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and, of course, saving as many lives as we can in those efforts.

So, you know, those that understand the mentality of Russia as a very proud, very large country that sees itself as a superpower, we have to try to design interventions that can bring about an end to war, a reconsideration of sanctions, a protection of Ukraine, and how you do that in a way where there’s not clear winners and losers. Because there’s never been a peace process that’s worked if there’s a clear winner and loser, and in terms of modern warfare, given the weaponry that’s available now, even more so.

So, really, I think that’s the challenge. But I’ve kind of moved away from the actual question on sanctions. I mean, generally, I’m quite skeptical as to the effectiveness of sanctions, I have to say.

But if you look at what we’re trying to do, for example, in terms of rebuilding the JCPOA—the Iranian nuclear deal—which, Ireland, actually, happens to be the facilitator of on the Security Council in terms of the resolution that’s the basis for that, again, you can actually see the impact of sanctions or the removal of sanctions as an incentive for a country to change course.

So, you know, sanctions can work but they need to be targeted and they need to be properly thought through and that’s not always been the case, I think, because often sanctions have actually imposed misery rather than change.

MOHYELDIN: As we’ve seen in Iraq.

This gentleman here had a question.

Q: Minister, the—Mark Rosen, formerly of the International Monetary Fund.

On the nuclear issue, which you alluded to earlier, clearly, that issue has come up in this terrible conflict, both President Putin making various statements before the invasion, the shelling of nuclear plants recently, and then also putting his nuclear forces on higher alert.

What’s your message to President Putin and Russia on this whole—on the steps they’ve taken and the actions they’ve taken regarding the nuclear issue?

COVENEY: Well, I think my message in terms of the shelling and fire to nuclear facilities in Ukraine is reckless and shouldn’t be happening. You know, we are talking about the largest nuclear facility on the continent of Europe here with six reactors, which has the capacity, should there be a major catastrophe there, to impact on an entire continent.

So there are obligations under war—on the war to actually protect facilities like nuclear facilities, and I think that was a—you know, the shelling of that plant raised a whole series of red flags around the world, that on top of all the other things that were happening, I think, there was a real reaction to that and understandably so.

In terms of putting Russia’s nuclear team on high alert, you know, I think that was a political tactic to really ratchet up tension to show that Russia was serious and, in some ways, was a sort of an implied threat to the West of don’t get too involved here or this will become a much bigger potential conflict.

Who knows whether it was a bluff or whether it was real? I don’t, and I’m not going to speculate. All I know is that it was very unwelcome because threats of a nuclear war are, effectively, threats to humanity. Like, let’s face it. That’s—so I just think it—now, since that announcement there’s actually been very little has come out of Moscow to back it up since then, which I don’t know whether we can take anything positive from that or not.

But I think, you know, nobody wants this to escalate into that kind of a conversation. Russia has talked about their own security concerns and I know Mr. Lavrov has talked about the sort of—you know, the removal of nuclear weapons from the EU.

But, you know, I don’t know whether that’s a diversion, you know, this sort of creating a justification for this conflict around Russian security concerns. I don’t really buy that argument, actually. I didn’t buy it before this invasion and I don’t buy it now.

You know, NATO membership in the European Union is misunderstood, I think, by some parts of the world. If you ask the Baltic states why they’re members of NATO, it’s not because they want to threaten Russia.

It’s because they’re afraid of Russia and Russian aggression. And so NATO is—certainly, in Europe anyway and, certainly, on the eastern side of the European Union close to Russia—is a defensive decision.

It’s about creating a shield from what many people see, because of their own history and experience of Russia, as, you know, an aggressor that they need protection from. It is not about the opposite, of sort of pushing an aggressive military alliance towards the border of Russia.

And I just—so I just don’t accept that argument around so-called legitimate security concerns of Russia. There is a legitimate debate that needs to happen around Europe’s security architecture that has to involve Russia.

But it’s not an excuse or a justification for the invasion of a sovereign country or anything like it. But that broader security architecture has got to involve Russia as a big part of that conversation.

But the NATO considerations—you know, if, for example, Finland and Sweden decide to join NATO, they’re not going to be joining because they want to threaten Russia. They want to join because they feel threatened by Russia and that’s a perspective that, I think, needs to be very clearly articulated around the world, because if you don’t live in Europe, it’s—you know, you often look at these things through a different lens.

MOHYELDIN: I think we have one more question virtually we can take.

OPERATOR: Our next virtual question will be from Esmir Milovich (sp).

Q: Thank you for taking my question.

Minister, you just mentioned Finland and Sweden. How worried you are that President Putin might try to destabilize those two countries but also to try to do that in the Western Balkans? At the last FAC, you mentioned Bosnia and Herzegovina and the situation here, and we know that he has some influence here in the Western Balkans.

So are you worried that once he’s done with Ukraine that he might try to do something in the north and the southeast of Europe? Thank you.

COVENEY: The straight answer to that question is no. I don’t believe Russia has the capacity to destabilize Finland or Sweden. They are two of the most stable countries that you’ll find anywhere on the planet and they also know Russia very well.

So, particularly, Finland, you know, has a very long border with Russia. They have a long history with Russia. They have understandings with Russia in terms of how the political relationships work.

So I think the capacity for Russia to destabilize those two EU member states I just don’t think it’s there. Now, God, maybe I’m wrong. That doesn’t mean, for example, that we might see cyberattacks or disinformation campaigns at election time and so on.

But I know both of those countries reasonably well and some of the politicians there. And, certainly, the language coming from the Kremlin is very threatening towards Finland and Sweden, saying, if you join NATO there will be consequences and so on.

But I don’t think they’re in anything like the same category as the Western Balkans, which is a much more vulnerable situation. And some of you will have seen the pro-Russian demonstrations in Serbia, for example, which, I think, you know, took a lot of people by—well, not by surprise, but, certainly, they noticed this.

And so I think the European Union has a lot of work to do to be more supportive of countries in the Western Balkans, particularly those that want to pursue membership at the EU in the future. I think we’re taking too long to move through the different stages of the accession process and we need to ensure that countries that are on a journey or want to be on a journey to join the EU and want our way of life, if you like, that, actually—that we create momentum in that direction as opposed to frustration, and there is, I think, a lot of potential instability in the Western Balkans at the moment that EU needs to focus on.

And then, of course, we have countries like Georgia and Moldova as well, both of whom in the last week have applied to join the European Union or applied for candidate status at the European Union. Again, it’s about self-preservation, you know, in the face of what they see as this very aggressive foreign policy and military stance coming from Moscow.

So that’s what I mean when I say, like, this war is changing Europe. It’s changing how countries interact with each other. It’s going to change the pace of enlargement. You know, up until ten days ago—it’s interesting, the Ukrainian foreign minister, when he was speaking to us on Friday, said, you know, before this war we saw NATO as strong and the EU as weak, even though we wanted to be part of the EU at some point in the future.

Now we’ve—now our view is changing. We’ve seen the economic and political strength of the EU. We weren’t expecting it to be as strong as it is. And, of course, they—their application now to become an accession state is likely to be fast tracked, in my view, for EU membership.

So, you know, the objectives of the Kremlin in terms of trying to pull Ukraine away from the EU, trying to dominate them, intimidate them, undermine their sovereignty, pull them back into a sort of a Russian fold, really, all of those objectives have resulted in the opposite happening.

Now, of course, we could be talking in a week’s time or ten days’ time and things could be different. We just don’t know. But for now, the connection between the EU and Ukraine is in a space that it’s never been before and I don’t see that changing.

Even if Russia takes control of large parts of Ukraine, I don’t see the EU ever recognizing Russian control of what we regard as our neighbor in Ukraine as a sovereign state.

So I hope I answered your question there. But I think the Finland-Sweden issue is a particular issue. But they are already EU member states, they’re already very stable EU member states, and they are countries that know Russia very well.

They may well choose—it’ll be a matter for those countries to choose whether they want to go in the direction of NATO membership or not. But it’s interesting that both of those militarily nonaligned sort of historically neutral countries are now both providing arms into Ukraine with other NATO countries. Ireland, Austria, and Malta are the three countries—and Cyprus—that haven’t done that but we’re making our contribution through other means.

MOHYELDIN: Mr. Minister, thank you so much for your time. It is 6:00. To all of our members here in New York and to those joining virtually, thank you for your questions.

The transcript, the video, will be available on the CFR website, and to all of you here in New York please join us for a reception afterwards.

Thank you so much for your time, sir. I greatly appreciate it.

COVENEY: Thank you. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.


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