EU and US agree Ukraine talks with Russia
The EU, Russia, Ukraine and the US are to hold joint talks in the next 10 days, amid fresh EU division on how to handle the crisis.
US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told press in Washington on Monday (7 April) that secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, agreed the move during a phone call earlier in the day.
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“He [Kerry] made clear that any further Russian efforts to destabilise Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia, and the ministers all discussed convening direct talks within the next 10 days between Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the EU to try to de-escalate the tensions,” she said.
The initiative comes after pro-Russian separatists seized local government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
In a repeat of events in Crimea, armed men in Donetsk proclaimed independence, called for a referendum on secession on 11 May and asked Russian forces to protect them.
Psaki indicated that the separatists are Russians in disguise. “Some of these officials, separatists, armed separatists went and claimed they were taking over the mayor’s building, and it was actually the opera house [in Kharkiv]. So clearly when you don’t know which one the mayor’s building is, you’re probably not a local,” she noted.
She said the current escalation is not enough to trigger additional sanctions, however.
She also said Russia’s idea to create a federal structure in Ukraine is not out of the question if Ukraine agrees: “In terms of their claims or their calls for federalisation, this is an issue where we feel the Ukrainian government, the legitimate government of Ukraine needs to be at the table to discuss.”
The US’ increasing willingness to accommodate Russia is mirrored in the EU.
EU countries had said if Russia attacks the Ukrainian mainland they would impose economic sanctions.
But they did not do it when Russian soldiers seized a gas pumping station on the mainland in March, and they are not ready to go ahead if Russian troops enter Donetsk.
Officials said on Monday the EU’s external action service and the European Commission are still drafting options and related impact assessments on sanctions, with “no clear timeline” for when they might finish.
A meeting by officials to update ambassadors in the EU Council on the work in progress was pushed back from last week to this Wednesday amid delays.
One diplomat said the slow pace reflects internal division.
“At the Gymnich in Athens [an EU foreign ministers’ meeting at the weekend], we heard from some ministers that the EU should take part of the blame for the crisis, that the summit in Vilnius was badly prepared, that the Eastern Partnership policy was badly thought out - this is quite a comfortable position which leads us toward introspection instead of strong opposition to Russia,” the contact said.
The diplomat indicated that France and Germany, as well as southern states Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are toeing the new line.
Another EU diplomat blamed the “Russian lobby” in Europe.
“There’s a bloc of Russian-friendly politicians, business chiefs, journalists, intellectuals, which has been cultivated by Russia for years and which is now mobilising on its behalf,” he said.
He noted that the federal model serves Russia by making Ukraine “ungovernable” and by ending its prospects of EU integration.
“The West knows what to do: We must show complete solidarity. We must send in military aid. We must flood Ukraine with experts - on the economy, on security sector reform, as we did in the Balkans. And we must put hundreds of EU personnel, in a peacekeeping or monitoring mission, on the Ukrainian-Russian border. But we lack the political will to confront Russia,” he added.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Kostyantin Yeliseyev, also called for a stronger response.
“We need to be more creative, to surprise Russia, because all the EU’s actions so far have been anticipated by the Russian side,” he told EUobserver on Monday.
“We have to avoid any sense of appeasement, any question of Western fatigue.”
With Russia threatening to cut off Ukraine’s gas if it does not agree to an 80 percent price hike and to repay multi-billion-euro debts, EU officials also called a snap meeting of the Gas Co-ordination Group on Tuesday.
The forum of EU countries’ energy officials and gas industry leaders will look at how to improve Ukraine’s energy security.
One idea is “reverse flows” - pumping Russian gas imported by countries such as Hungary, Poland or Slovakia via Russian pipelines back to Ukraine.
But Slovakia, the best placed in technical terms to go ahead, has cast doubt on the idea.
"For a reverse flow, you would have to stop the east-west flow in one of the pipelines and reverse the flow. But you would have to have approval from Gazprom … Gazprom does not agree with this and so it's not an option,” a spokesman for Slovak pipeline operator Eustream told Reuters on Monday.
“It’s not just Germany and the southern EU countries which are taking a pro-Russian swerve. We are also seeing this in Bulgaria, in Hungary and in Slovakia,” the EU diplomat told this website.
“Russian gas transit fees account for 7 percent of Slovakia's GDP, so there’s no question of reverse flows,” he added.