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23rd Mar 2019

Ukraine crisis: EU threatens asset freeze on Russian officials

  • Fabius spelled out what the EU ministers meant by 'targeted measures' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU foreign ministers have threatened asset freezes against Kremlin officials unless Russia pulls back in Ukraine, but left the final decision up to EU leaders on Thursday (6 March).

The statement by ministers on Monday urged Moscow to “immediately withdraw its armed forces to the areas of their permanent stationing” under a 1997 Russia-Ukraine treaty.

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It comes after Russia’s forces poured out of its Black Sea Fleet base in Ukraine’s Crimea over the past few days to occupy the whole peninsula.

The ministers said they would “consider … targeted measures” if Moscow does not comply.

They also threatened to suspend talks on EU-Russia visa-free travel and on a new bilateral treaty.

But the only concrete step for now was confirmation that no EU members of the G8 club of wealthy nations will go to a G8 summit in Russia in June as things stand.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton told press after the meeting: “The ambition is to see the situation improve. If it doesn’t, then the course is set by the Foreign Affairs Council and the European Council will need to consider what it is going to do.”

The snap EU summit is to take place on Thursday morning in Brussels.

Ashton added: “We value very highly the relationship that we have with Russia. We want Russia to reach out to people in Ukraine to have the conversation the Ukrainian government wants to have.”

“We really want to see this resolved peacefully.”

Earlier drafts of the ministers’ statement hinted that the “targeted measures” might include freezing an EU-Russia “Partnership for Modernisation” and imposing a symbolic arms embargo.

But French foreign minister Laurent Fabius made clear the targets also include Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s top officials. “There could be targeted measures and that can also affect people, officials, and their assets … The general tone is that the Russians appear to have decided to go even further. Europe must be firm,” he said.

Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke, like Ashton, more gently.

He urged Russia to accept mediation and a fact-finding mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a Vienna-based multilateral club.

“Diplomacy is not a sign of weakness but more needed than ever,” he said.

He noted that the “biggest danger” is a shooting which starts because someone "loses their nerves, not because of political reasons, but because the situation is so tense."

The EU ministers also condemned what they called “acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces."

But the ministers stopped short of calling it an “invasion,” with Ashton noting that reports of Russian troop movements in Ukraine beyond Crimea are for the time being “confusing … very difficult to verify.”

With Russia accusing the West of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, EU ministers showed solidarity with the post-revolution authorities in Kiev.

They said they will go ahead with a joint bailout with the International Monetary Fund and that they are happy to sign an association and free trade agreement with Kiev despite its confrontation with Moscow.

They also said they will “swiftly work” on asset freezes against members of the old Ukrainian regime deemed guilty of “misappropriation of state funds … [and] human rights violations.”

Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland already did it last week, with former Ukraininan president Viktor Yanukovych and his older son, Oleksandr, along with some 18 other top names on the Austrian and Swiss blacklists.

Lithuania on Monday said it will also go ahead at national level, while EU diplomats finalise details of which names to designate EU-wide.

Opinion

Ukraine: The Empire strikes back

If the international community allows Russia to partition Ukraine despite the Budapest treaty, it will send a terrible signal.

Name row on new EU sanctions exposes deeper rift

EU officials have voiced scepticism on proposed new human rights sanctions, amid a "nasty" debate to what extent Russia ought to be named and shamed in the title of the new measures.

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