Josep Borrell: “A no-fly zone would lead the conflict to a third world war”

In less than a week, the High Representative for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, Joseph Borrell, has jumped from his office in Brussels to the plenary session in Strasbourg, the Versailles summit and the Turkish city of Antalya to participate in an international forum on diplomacy. From there he speaks with EL PERIÓDICO, before beginning a tour of the western Balkans. At the center of all his encounters: the war in Ukraine. “If Putin wins this war and subjugates Ukraine, we are opening the doors to the law of the jungle, for the strongest to dominate the weakest without excuse and reason,” warns the Catalan politician.

What diagnosis do you make of the military and humanitarian situation?

It is clear that it has not been a blitzkrieg. Surely they did not expect such a strong resistance and the Russian army is not showing great operational capacity either. Since it cannot gain territory, when there is a confrontation on the ground, it does not break the defensive lines and does what an army based on artillery does: bomb as they did in Syria and Chechnya. Systematically and indiscriminately as we are seeing, destroying civilian targets and causing an enormous number of victims. At this moment, the most worrying thing is the humanitarian situation in the surrounded cities, with temperatures of 20 degrees below zero, without gas, or electricity, without water and with the humanitarian corridors not working.

He is worried about the arrival of soldiers from the Middle East. Why would an army like the Russian one need 16,000 Syrian soldiers to fight in Ukraine?

I have no confirmation. It is difficult to verify but everything indicates that they are having more casualties than they thought, that they have lost a lot of material, that their aviation is not being effective, they do not have control of the airspace.

The Russians control the Zaporizhia and Chernobyl nuclear power plants. Is there a risk of a nuclear incident?

I have spoken with the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who was very concerned the day before yesterday about the news that was arriving, but he reassured me by saying that there was certainly a risk but that, for now, the situation is under control.

They do not send planes or guarantee the no-fly zone requested by the Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, but they raise the money to buy weapons from Ukraine to 1,000 million and approve a fourth package of sanctions. Why don’t they block oil and gas imports? Isn’t that continuing to give Putin carte blanche?

Giving carte blanche would mean that we are not doing anything. We are doing everything we can from a military perspective, helping to facilitate the resistance of the Ukrainians with military equipment, being careful not to spread the war to other countries, and avoiding a confrontation that could lead to a nuclear confrontation. When someone asks for a no-fly zone, that implies having the ability and the will to shoot down Russian planes that violate it. It would be to extend the conflict to a Third World War and it is evident that we do not want to do it. We move to the limit of what we can to help, without entering into a situation of belligerence and becoming part of the conflict. Sanctions do not have the ability to stop the war overnight but they have the ability to weaken the Russian economy and will cost Russia dearly. We still have the issue of energy imports, but we are going to reduce them as quickly as possible.

Can Putin win this war?

I thought that Ukraine was weak, it would surrender in days, that Westerners would be divided, that we would not be able to apply such strong economic and financial sanctions. He has been wrong about everything. Ukraine is resisting and we will do everything possible to help it, from the point of view of military means, sanctions and international diplomatic pressure on Russia, trying to isolate it from the international community. In the United Nations there has been a total rejection and we must continue isolating the Putin regime to demonstrate the rejection of the world. If Putin wins this war and subdues Ukraine, we are opening the doors to the law of the jungle, that the strongest can dominate the weakest without excuse and reason.

China does not seem convinced of its reading.

China has not supported Russia. A few days before the start of the war, Putin signed a partnership agreement with China that goes a long way, but China has not supported Russia, has not voted in its favor and it is very significant. It is a country that can play a role and probably will because not everything that happens is known.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has started collecting evidence of possible crimes in Ukraine. Should Putin be put on trial?

What is happening deserves to be investigated from the point of view that they constitute war crimes and the ICC and the United Nations Human Rights Council are already there. We are looking at how best to support the court, including with regard to preservation of evidence.

In two weeks we have seen unprecedented unity and commitment to spend more on Defense. What does it mean for the EU plans and strategic compass?

We said that Europe is in danger and many thought it was a slogan to sell merchandise (the Defense plan), but unfortunately the facts have proven us right. European society is facing a very dangerous environment. From the Sahel and the west coast of Africa, to the Middle East and the Caucasus. It is politically unstable, shaken by many dangerous and growing dynamics, fueled by structural changes such as climate change, political instability, and Russia’s growing influence in many parts of the African continent. We are negotiating in Vienna, trying to revive the nuclear pact with Iran. We have had to suspend negotiations for a few days due to the Ukrainian crisis but, if we succeed, we will greatly reduce the levels of risk faced by European society. Europeans have to be aware that the world they live in is a dangerous world and they have to be prepared to face it.

He says the goal is not to topple Putin but to put pressure on him. Do you see an internal rebellion in Russia possible in response to international isolation?

Our goal is to respect international legality and to end the invasion of Ukraine and the unjustified suffering of the Ukrainian people. What happens in the Russian political system is a matter for the Russians. We are not sanctioning Russia to change its political regime, but it is clear that we are punishing the oligarchs, who are the basis of political support for Putin, with our sanctions. We do not want war with Russia, we do not want to harm the Russian people, but rather to weaken the political leadership responsible for what is happening in Ukraine.

Should Emmanuel Macron keep talking to Putin or is this the wrong strategy?

All diplomatic contacts that can be developed are necessary. You have to try everything because the only one who can stop the war is Putin. He has started it, it is his war and he can stop it.

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The EU has ruled out an express accession of Ukraine. Should Zelensky give up joining the EU or NATO and opt for neutrality in order to obtain peace?

Regarding entry into the EU, I don’t see why you have to give up something that has no military dimension. I do not think that the justification for the war can be found in Ukraine’s hypothetical NATO membership, which was not on the agenda at all. And no one can prevent Ukraine from being part of the European family because it is part of the European family. No one has to give permission. He wants to live in a system of civil liberties where people choose their governments and a market economy. It is what Putin does not like because it is to have part of the Slavic population living under a political system that offers more freedom, rights and prosperity. It is the real threat that Putin believes is Ukraine.

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