Rinkēvičs cites urgent need for backing on territorial integrity, economy

Ukraine requires strong support for its territorial integrity and economy well before an Eastern Partnership summit in Riga in May, according to Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs.

Describing Ukraine as the “biggest challenge,” Rinkēvičs said, “we need to address some issues now, in January, in February, not in May, not next year.”

This includes expressing strong support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as securing a comprehensive aid package that is linked to reform, he added.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 and ongoing fighting against pro-Russia separatists in the country’s east have ravaged Ukraine’s economy.

“Ukraine needs our assistance much earlier” than the Riga summit, said Rinkēvičs.

Rinkēvičs spoke at the “Toward a Transatlantic Strategy for Europe’s East” conference organized by the Atlantic Council and the Embassy of Latvia in Washington on January 30.

The Treasury Department announced earlier in January that the US would provide a $2 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine if the government in Kyiv makes progress on a reform program, which is backed by the International Monetary Fund.

Rinkēvičs said there is awareness in Washington of the consequences of letting Ukraine fall.

“There has been quite a strong understanding here in Washington [that] if they let Ukraine fall, then the big question is who is next?” he said.

“If you don’t stop Russia now you don’t know where are you going to [have to] stop [it] next, be it Central Asia … you get turmoil and the whole region around Afghanistan exploding, be it so-called frontline states in Europe,” he added.

Rinkēvičs warned of the cost of ignoring any one region.

“We cannot simply ignore one region and think the other region is more important,” he said, predicting that problems in the Caucasus will inevitably lead to bigger issues, including that of foreign terrorists.

“The biggest problem is we all understand the challenges, the trouble is we don’t have enough resources to address this issue,” he added.

Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., Chairman of the Atlantic Council, said the US, Canada, and Europe need to have a joint strategy to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine and the rest of its neighborhood; avoid a “gray zone of insecurity” between the European Union and Russia; and advance a Europe whole, free, and at peace in which the “door remains open for Russia to find its peaceful place.”

The European Union itself has been divided on some key issues.

Rinkēvičs said the prospects for a more coherent European perspective on the Eastern Partnership would depend on how events in Ukraine unfold.

“I would [have] liked to see much more active response by EU when the annexation of Crimea started. I think we lost time,” Rinkēvičs said in response to a question from Craig Kennedy, Senior Adviser at Tapestry Networks.

Even so, the EU has shown unity over the situation in Ukraine, he said.

“At the end of the day we have some kind of common denominator… This is very important. It is something that came as quite a surprise to those leaders in Russia that are currently shaping foreign policy,” he added.

Latvia for the first time holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Rinkēvičs said the Riga summit must send a strong signal of commitment from Europe to all six countries — Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia — in its eastern neighborhood.

Other goals should include the announcement of visa liberalization program, addressing issues of rule of law and fighting corruption, and strengthening media freedom.  

“Riga has to be the city where we do not lose perspective,” said Rinkēvičs.

He said the transformation of the European Union is not over, but the EU will not force countries to join it.

“If we have a problem in Ukraine, if we have a problem at our eastern borders, ultimately it is going to affect all of us — in Europe, as well as, to some extent, in the United States,” he said.

“We have to do what we can to push for continuation of our eastern programs, strong transatlantic relations, and try to do our best to assist those countries that are really struggling to overcome the legacies of totalitarian rules … to become part of the community of our values,” he added.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.