EU ministers weigh reaction to Ukraine referendums
EU foreign ministers are expected to give a low key reaction to the weekend’s referendums on independence in eastern Ukraine.
One diplomat said the bloc is likely to broaden the designation of the EU’s Russia blacklist to enable it to target more senior Kremlin officials in future, but that ministers will not add new names to the existing list-of-48 when they meet in Brussels on Monday (12 May).
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“Some colleagues still believe there’s a possibility of resolving the situation with political dialogue,” the EU source noted.
“The EU is in a lose-lose situation: If we do nothing, people will say Europe is hesitating. If one or two EU states impose extra sanctions, they will say we cannot agree. If all 28 move together, they will say we are provoking Russia.”
For their part German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande at a meeting in Stralsund, Germany, on Saturday threatened to impose economic measures against Russia if it disrupts Ukraine’s 25 May presidential elections.
They said nothing about sanctions in view of Sunday’s referendums, however.
They also called for Ukrainian forces to act “proportionally” in their efforts to retake government buildings in rebel-held areas amid mounting casualties in what Kiev is calling its “Anti-terror Operation”.
The referendum results announced by separatists in Donetsk on Sunday night said 90 percent of people votes Yes to the question "Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People's Republic?"
They said the turnout was 75 percent.
Rebel authorities in Luhansk said turnout was 89 percent but did not unveil the outcome of the vote.
"All military troops on our territory after the official announcement of referendum results will be considered illegal and declared occupiers … It is necessary to form state bodies and military authorities as soon as possible,” Denis Pushilin, a separatist leader in Donetsk said.
The votes were denounced as “illegal” by authorities in Kiev, whose forces saw continued skirmishes in the region amid the voting, with US agency The Associated Press reporting that Ukrainian soldiers fired into a crowd of civilians in the eastern city of Krasnoarmeysk, killing two people.
For his part, France’s Hollande said on a visit to Azerbaijan on Sunday: "I don't want to call them referendums … [because they] had no legitimacy and no legality."
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt tweeted: “Figures from fake referendums likely to be fake. No way of knowing even turnout.”
The EU Council’s President, Herman Van Rompuy, also announced he will travel to Kiev on Monday "to continue our talks on how to stabilise the situation in Ukraine ahead of the presidential elections on 25 May, how to put an end to violence in Ukraine, and how to create an inclusive national dialogue".
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has not yet spoken out on the legitimacy of the referendum results.
But he gave a patriotic speech in Moscow on 9 May as the Russian military paraded in front of the Kremlin on a World War II anniversary. “It is a festival when … we all keenly feel what it means to be loyal to the motherland and how important it is to be able to defend its interests,” he said.
He then flew to Sevastopol in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March following a Donetsk/Luhanks-type plebiscite, where he stepped off a naval vessel to address Russian-flag waving crowds.
A US state department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said "Crimea belongs to Ukraine and we don't recognise of course the illegal and illegitimate steps by Russia in that regard."
An EU spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, told press the EU "regretted" his Sevastopol visit.
"An important day in our shared history, dedicated to honouring the enormous sacrifices and giving remembrance to the millions of dead in the Second World War, should not have been instrumentalised to give visibility to the illegal annexation of Crimea," she noted.
Robert Gates, the former US defence chief told media: “In the short term, there's not a lot we can do.”
"My view is, if Putin is playing a long game, that's what we need to do. And we need to figure out how we can push back on the periphery of Russia, in terms of making sure those states have the independence to choose with whom they want to ally or have economic relations,” he added.