27th Oct 2016

Ukraine PM, EU leaders taking soft line on Crimea

Ukraine’s interim leader has urged the UK and US to protect its territorial integrity, but indicated the Ukrainian army will not act unless Russian forces move beyond Crimea.

Speaking to press in Brussels at an emergency EU summit on Thursday (6 March), Arseniy Yatsenyuk noted the two Western powers in 1994 signed a pact, the so-called Budapest memorandum, to protect Ukraine in return for its nuclear disarmament.

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“We believe those who guaranteed our independence will do their utmost to exercise their obligations. For today this is not just a domestic conflict or a local one. This conflict would have negative implications on the nuclear non-proliferation programme ... it would be quite difficult to convince Iran or North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons if those who guaranteed our independence were not consistent in respecting and delivering those guarantees,” he said.

He echoed Lithuania in noting that if Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region goes unchecked, it will embolden Moscow to intervene in other former Soviet states.

“That’s why we want Russia to stop, because God knows where the boundaries are,” he added.

He “commended” the Ukrainian military for not giving in to Russian “provocations” in the past two weeks, noting that Russia has overwhelming conventional military superiority.

But he made a distinction between the rest of Ukrainian territory and the semi-autonomous Crimea region when he promised the Ukrainian military would defend its country.

“In the case of Russian escalation and military intervention into Ukrainian territory by a foreign force, the Ukrainian government will act in accordance with the constitution and laws. We are ready to defend our country,” he said.

He also referred to the possibility of Crimea becoming a “frozen conflict” as in Georgia or Moldova, where Russian forces have occupied breakaway regions for more than 20 years.

Yatsenyuk spoke after meeting with EU leaders to discuss the Crimea crisis, as well as prospects for EU financial assistance and for the speedy signature of an EU association and free trade treaty.

But his effort to establish international credibility for the post-revolutionary authorities in Kiev also faces a domestic political challenge.

A leaked phone call between the Estonian foreign minister and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on 25 February has attracted attention for its talk of who ordered snipers to fire on crowds and police.

But the Estonian minister equally underlined the tension on the streets of Kiev.

“There is no trust in these politicians … the Maidan [the popular protest movement] and civil society say they know everybody on the new government and all these guys have a shady past, “ Urmas Paet said. “[If] there is no action to increase the level of trust … this will end badly.”

One Ukrainian civil society activist, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver rumours are swirling in Kiev that former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has made a deal with the Kremlin to let Russia take Crimea in return for helping her return to office.

“I've heard it from a couple of trustworthy people that Crimea was promised to Russia by Tymoshenko in return for the removal of [former Ukrainian leader] Yanukovych and bringing her back into power,” the contact said.

“It seems that the present course of action is … Ukraine does nothing and just waits until Crimeans have their referendum where they decide on a new status for Crimea and federation or confederation in their relations with Ukraine. After that, even the West would not be willing to do anything, as it happened in Georgia.”

Tymoshenko’s party, co-led by Yatsenyuk, has denied it.

But for their part, EU leaders appear to be moving in a similar direction.

When foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday, they called on Russia to pull back its troops to their normal barracks in Crimea or face sanctions.

But a draft statement to be read out by EU Council head Herman Van Rompuy on Thursday, parts of which were leaked to press, threatens severe sanctions only if the status quo, with Russian troops and pro-Russian paramilitaries in control of Crimea, gets worse.

"Failure by Russia to de-escalate the situation will have serious consequences on our bilateral relationship [to be updated in the light of events],” it notes.

The US on Thursday took a tougher line than Europe.

The White House said, as EU leaders’ talks began, that it has authorised visa bans on Russian and Ukrainian-origin nationals who are responsible for the Crimea situation.

“Pursuant to the President’s guidance, today the State Department is putting in place visa restrictions on a number of officials and individuals … responsible for or complicit in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” it said.

It added that President Barack Obama’s executive order gives the US treasury leeway to pursue asset freezes.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, spoke for a second day with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, this time shifting the venue from Paris to Rome.

But the talks did not lead to an agreement, with Lavrov saying the US punitive measures are making it harder to reach a deal.

"He [Kerry] assured me there are no such lists [Russian blacklists] for now. There is only the order, but that doesn't change facts, this is still a threat,” Lavrov said, Reuters reports.

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