Wednesday

25th May 2022

Opinion

Why Russia's EU ambassador should be persona non grata

  • Vladimir Chizhov (l) at a dinner of the Security & Defence Agenda, a Brussels think-tank, in 2015 - one year after Russia first invaded Ukraine (Photo: Security & Defence Agenda)
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The last time I interviewed Russia's EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov he was doing what he does best — lying about Russian aggression and mocking its victims.

It was about two months before Russia launched a bloody, all-out war on its peaceful neighbour Ukraine.

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Chizhov was slouching in a taupe-coloured leather arm chair in Russia's cavernous embassy building flanked by his young, swivel-eyed spokesman, Sergey Kovalevskiy, while glibly parroting Kremlin propaganda about Ukraine war plans or previous outrages, such as Russia's attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former spy, using a chemical weapon in the UK four years ago.

"When the Skripal case came out, you remember the wording used by the Brits — 'highly likely'?" Chizhov said, referring to initial British assessments of Russia's guilt.

This "became a very popular saying in Russia", Chizhov said. "Like a young man proposing to his girlfriend: 'Will you marry me?' and she says 'highly likely' and he wonders whether it's a yes or no", the ambassador added, with a chuckle.

The Skripal attack killed one person and hospitalised four others — when asked if he thought that was funny Chizhov rowed back. "It's certainly not funny. If I make jokes, it's about the British version of events, not the event itself," he claimed.

You can believe him if you like.

But even if you don't, you should take him seriously because Chizhov is Russia's most important influencer in the EU capital and the lies he spreads here are directly undermining your security.

I'm not that bothered about his media work, though it is worth mentioning in more detail.

For the past three weeks, Kovalevskiy has been regularly mailing Chizhov's war-lies to their list of the hundreds of international journalists posted in Brussels. Kovalevskiy also micro-manages media coverage of the war by writing long chains of emails to editors about the vocabulary they use.

In one example, Kovalevskiy wrote to EUobserver's editor last weekend complaining that Chihzov felt "insult" over an op-ed, issued thinly-veiled threats, then rambled on about Russia's "denazification of Ukraine".

The letter also contained grandstanding about journalistic standards.

It was sent the same weekend Russian soldiers shot dead a US journalist, Brent Renaud, in Ukraine and a couple of days before Russian forces killed two other journalists working for US broadcaster Fox News — Pierre Zakrzewski and Oleksandra Kurshynova.

"They are deliberately targeting journalists", Mark Rachkevych, a US-born reporter, told EUobserver on Tuesday (15 March), one day after fleeing Kyiv.

This is how Russia really feels about Western journalism.

I wonder if any editors in Brussels buy a dime's worth of Chizhov's nonsense any more?

But in any case, the real danger is what the Russian ambassador is saying behind closed doors to the EU officials, MEPs, and member states' diplomats whose personal friendships he has been cultivating for years in Brussels.

The 68-year old first arrived in the EU capital 16 years ago and the fact the Kremlin has kept him here all this time (a normal diplomatic posting lasts four years) goes to show how valuable he and his social networks have become.

Back in December, as Russia's invasion force was preparing to strike Ukraine in plain view, Chizhov boasted he was still being invited by top think-tanks such as Friends of Europe and having regular tête-à-têtes with his EU friends.

Those who met him were "like children" who felt flattered or excited by contact with the bogeyman in Europe's story, a Ukrainian diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, said at the time.

"It gives people a thrill to meet the monster", the diplomat said.

I don't know if these EU children have grown up yet, but some of them will be instrumental in implementing Western economic sanctions on Russia, which are widely considered as being the best hope of stopping Russia's war by peaceful means.

And if they've been sitting in Chizhov's lap for 16 years listening to his stories, they might be more inclined than I am to buy his ideas.

The EU recently banned several Russian media outlets, TV personalities, and Kremlin spokesmen for spreading lies about the war — it already has the legal basis to send Chizhov packing back to Moscow, with its shuttered shop fronts and spiralling paranoia.

You might say: "Chizhov could be a back channel for the West to discuss peace". He isn't.

Top US and Nato generals have secure phone lines to Russian military commanders to avoid accidental escalation — these are the real back channels.

I don't know where Chizhov lives in Brussels. But most Russian diplomats live in the leafy, middle-class suburbs near the St Elizabeth hospital in the city's so-called Uccle district.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have no homes to go back to because their towns were demolished or occupied by the Russian army.

Chizhov will sleep well, probably somewhere in Uccle, tonight.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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