26th Oct 2016

'Frozen conflict' looming in east Ukraine, EU diplomats say

  • EU ambassadors will hold another sanctions review at the end of October (Photo:

EU countries have decided to uphold Russia sanctions for now, despite a “weakening appetite” for the measures.

The EU foreign service on Tuesday (30 September) said that “while encouraging developments have been registered in the political process and in the implementation of some aspects of the Minsk protocol, relevant parts of the same protocol will need to be properly implemented” before sanctions are lifted.

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It added that if things go well, the EU will in future consider proposals “to amend, suspend or repeal the set of sanctions in force, in all or in part”.

The communique was published after a debate by EU countries’ ambassadors in Brussels.

The Minsk protocol - a Russia-Ukraine accord from 5 September - says Ukraine is to grant autonomy to rebel-held areas if pro-Russia fighters lay down their arms and surrender control of the Russia-Ukraine border.

The accord led to a halt in heavy fighting, despite occasional flare-ups, one of which saw rebels kill seven Ukrainian soldiers this week.

It also led Ukraine to pass laws on rebel self-rule and an amnesty for rebel fighters.

But Pierre Vimont, a senior diplomat from the EU foreign service, told the EU ambassadors that Russia is not keeping its side of the bargain, EU sources told this website.

He corroborated press reports that Russian troops are still on Ukrainian territory, that 75 Russian military officers are working closely with rebel chiefs, and that the border remains open, with Russia to shortly send a fourth convoy of “aid” trucks to east Ukraine without Ukrainian permission.

One EU diplomat said: “There is a lull in fighting, but the status quo is very fragile so we need extra time and we shouldn’t take any rash decisions”.

He added on the Minsk deal: “There are some points where even the greatest optimists cannot argue that Russia is in compliance”.

Another EU source said anti-sanction states - such as the Czech republic, Hungary, and Slovakia - kept quiet on Tuesday because German chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this week said No to repealing the measures at this stage.

“A decision to soften the sanctions requires consensus, so there was not much point in making the argument after Merkel spoke out.”

A third EU source noted that Russia hawks, such as Lithuania, had wanted Tuesday's EU statement to also say sanctions could be increased if things don't go well. But the idea did not fly.

The contact added that sanctions-critics are biding their time until a second review of Russia policy due at the end of the month.

“The appetite for sanctions is going down,” he said.

With no sign Russia will give up Crimea or that pro-Russia rebels will give up claims to independence in east Ukraine, he predicted the EU is heading for a Georgia-type scenario.

“In the long term, we might be heading for the same situation as Abkhazia and South Ossetia - non-recognition, but re-engagement with Russia”, he said, referring to two Russia-occupied Georgian regions.

Another EU diplomat added: “The events on the ground might lead to a frozen conflict for the long term … but since the EU has said there is no military solution, we have to do what we can with the diplomatic approach".

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