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27th May 2017

EU to urge Russia to withdraw troops, drafts potential sanctions

  • Steinmeier (r): 'there is a real danger of another division of Europe' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU countries plan to urge Russia to pull back its troops from Ukraine and to threaten sanctions if it does not comply.

According to a draft statement being debated at a snap EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday (3 March), and seen by EUobserver, the Union will say it “strongly condemns the [invasion] [clear violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity] of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea by the Russian armed forces.”

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The brackets indicate the language which has not yet been agreed.

The draft text adds: “The EU calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its armed forces to the areas of their permanent stationing.”

It also says: “[In the absence of de-escalating steps by Russia] The EU has decided to suspend bilateral talks with the Russian authorities on visa matters, as well as on the New Agreement,[including modernisation and sectorial co-operation dialogue.]. The EU will evaluate the impact of further possible negative actions by Russia for EU-Russia relations, [including on conditions for developing future relations with the Customs Union (Eurasian Economic Union). In the absence of an agreed solution, the EU will [consider][begin preparations] for future targeted measures], [including an arms embargo].”

On Ukraine itself, it notes: “[The Council agreed to focus [decided to adopt] restrictive measures on (for) the freezing and recovery of assets of persons identified as responsible for the misappropriation of State funds [and tasked the relevant working parties to swiftly implement them].]

It also says the EU will press ahead with a joint International Monetary Fund bailout nd keep open its offer to sign an association and free trade pact.

With British foreign minister William Hague in Kiev, his deputy, David Liddington, told press in Brussels ahead of an emergency foreign ministers’ meeting that: “We will want to make it clear today that if the Russian government were to persist with its current course of action then that will come at a cost to Russia.”

The UK, as well as Ukraine, Russia, and the US are signatories to a 1994 pact, the so-called Budapest memorandum, which guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

But with EU leaders expected to hold an extraordinary summit on Ukraine on Thursday any big decisions are likely to wait.

For its part, Germany indicated the EU will not impose sanctions right away.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Brussels on Monday the Union should first try to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, for instance, under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a Vienna-based body which includes both countries as members, and to send an OSCE “fact-finding mission” to Crimea.

Steinmeier noted that Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the OSCE idea by phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Sunday.

He said “there is a real danger of another division of Europe" after the Cold War ended 25 years ago, but he added that nothing is “decided” yet and that ”a reversal is still possible.”

Hungary’s Janos Martonyi also underlined the importance of Russia-Ukraine talks, saying he would be willing to host a meeting of the Budapest memorandum signatories in his capital, where it was signed.

But Ireland’s Eamonn Gilmore noted “the issue of sanctions is an option and that’s something that will be discussed today.”

The Czech Republic’s Lubomir Zaoralek went further, saying that “given the current situation, talks on visa-free travel for Russians to the EU should be put on hold or abandoned.”

No shots have yet been fired in Ukraine.

Russian forces began irregular movements in Crimea on 21 February. But moved in en masse to seize strategic assets, such as airports, over the weekend.

Amid fresh reports on Monday that pro-Russian militants have seized public buildings in the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa, and that Russian soldiers in Kaliningard, which borders Lithuania and Poland, have launched a surprise drill, Poland’s Radek Sikorski echoed Steinmeier on the gravity of the situation.

“We have the most serious crisis in Europe since the wars of Yugoslav secession. The credibility of the international community, and the EU in particular, is at stake,” he said.

For their part, the G7 club of leading industrialised nations has already said its leaders will boycott a summit with Russia, in the “G8” format, in Sochi in June.

Russia has also paid an economic cost for its actions, with markets on Monday wiping out between 12 and 15 percent of the value of leading Russian firms, such as Gazprom, and with the Russian ruble tumbling against the dollar.

But Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, continued to blame Western powers for causing the situation.

He told a meeting on Syria in Geneva that: “Those who try to interpret the situation as an act of aggression, threaten us with sanctions and boycotts, are the same partners who have been consistently and vigorously encouraging the political powers [in Ukraine] close to them to declare ultimatums and renounce dialogue, to ignore the concerns of the south and east of Ukraine, and consequently to the polarization of the Ukrainian society.”

His ministry added in a statement there are “no grounds” for the G8 boycott.

This story was updated at 5pm Brussels time to add new information on the ministers' draft conclusions

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