EU and US draw new red line on Ukraine
The EU and US have threatened further sanctions against Russia if it tries to disrupt the 25 May presidential elections in Ukraine.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and US secretary of state John Kerry issued the warning at a press briefing in Washington on Tuesday (6 May).
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Ashton noted that following an agreement on de-escalation in Geneva in mid-April, the EU “put on hold measures that we were considering” on economic sanctions. But she added: “When we saw that we were not getting the results from Geneva, we pressed the start button again.”
Kerry said, referring to a recent meeting between the US and German leaders, that: “they said clearly … if there is continued interference with respect to the election and election process, there will be more sanctions that this time will start to bite into the sectors of the [Russian] economy.”
Ashton and Kerry described the Ukrainian elections as a key moment in trying to stabilise the country and said Ukraine has a right to defend its territorial integrity by attacking pro-Russia separatists in the east and south.
Kerry also rejected Russia's line that the separatists are a spontaneous movement.
“What we are trying to do is not targeted on him [Russian leader Vladimir Putin] because we have some personal thing or something about him. It’s because he’s making decisions that are adversely affecting the region and the rights of the people of Ukraine to choose their future,” he said.
His top official on Ukraine, Victoria Nuland, was more blunt at a hearing with congressmen the same day.
“We continue to have high confidence that Russia’s hand is behind this instability. They are providing material support. They are providing funding. They are providing weapons. They are providing co-ordination, and there are Russians agents on the ground in Ukraine,” she noted.
She said the 25 May vote will take place in “alternate locations” in Ukraine for people from Russian-occupied Crimea and other occupied cities.
She also said the ODIHR, a Warsaw-based election-monitoring body, will send over 1,000 staff to Ukraine “in the largest monitoring effort in the organisation’s history”, while the US will contribute 255 long-term monitors and 3,330 short-term ones.
Nuland noted that sanctions have already caused the ruble to plummet, Russia’s bond yields to soar, and $51 billion of capital to flee the country in the past four months.
“Unless Putin changes course, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the current nationalistic fever will break in Russia. When it does, it will give way to a sweaty and harsh realisation of the economic costs,” she said.
Daniel Glaser, a senior official at the US treasury, told Congress that one idea is to block Visa and Mastercard from doing business in Russia. "The credit card idea … is certainly one of the levers that we have," he said.
Flashpoints in the run-up to the Ukrainian vote are to come on 9 May, when Russia plans to hold a military parade in Crimea, and on 11 May, when separatists in Donetsk plan to seek Russian recognition for a referendum on secession.
Germany’s Angela Merkel said on Tuesday after meeting Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in Nicosia it would be “a shame” if Putin attends the 9 May parade.
With Cyprus worried about the impact of sanctions on its economy, she added: “We know that each country has its own level of [Russian] dependence. [But] we have to show that we can take action.”
Her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Tuesday in Vienna.
Steinmeier earlier in the day in an op-ed published in five European newspapers warned that violence in Ukraine means “we are literally on the brink of a war in eastern Europe”. His op-ed hailed a recent deal to free EU peace monitors held by Ukrainian rebels as an example of what can be achieved if Russia and the West work together.
But German diplomacy has failed to change the Russian position so far.
Lavrov told press in Vienna he rejects Steinmeier’s call to hold a second round of Geneva talks. He also rejected the idea the 25 May elections can bring peace.
"I don't think [another Geneva meeting] would have any added value – we would just go round in circles,” he said.
"Scheduling an election during a time when the army is being used against a part of the population is not conventional - it's not Afghanistan," he added.