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20th Jan 2020

Rouble crisis feeds EU hope of Russia pull-back

  • Latvia was spooked by Russia's annexation of Crimea last year (Photo: Holy Trinity Church of Pārdaugava)

Latvia, among the most hawkish states when it comes to dealing with Moscow, has said it would support a roll-back of sanctions if Russia withdraws from eastern Ukraine.

With the Russian economy near collapse due to low oil prices and the biting effect of the EU-US sanctions, Moscow is now signalling willingness to seek a solution with the EU, Latvian foreign minister Edgar Rinkecis said Wednesday (7 January) in Riga.

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"Due to the economic situation, there is a kind of opening we can use. Depending on progress, we will see in March if we can roll back some of the sanctions," said Rinkecis, whose country has just assumed the six-month EU presidency.

"The conditions are clear: No Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine, a full implementation of the Minsk agreement, including provisions on autonomy and Russian language," he said.

But if the situation deteriorates "we should use the sanctions instrument further", he added.

He confirmed there are talks among the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France to organise a meeting for their leaders later this month in Astana, Kazakhstan.

However, French president Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel have indicated they will go only if there is something concrete to be agreed.

Latvian prime minister Laimdota Straujuma in a separate briefing said that "sanctions are a correct step" after Russia's annexation of Crimea and continued fighting in eastern Ukraine.

"But if there is progress, if there is implementation of the Minsk agreement, then we can discuss reviewing the sanctions," Straujuma said.

The prime minister, who took office a year ago, noted: "I would by lying if i said I was not worried last year, we were all extremely anxious about the annexation of Crimea."

Latvia, as well as the other two Baltic states Estonia and Lithuania, was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and 1945 and gained its independence in 1990.

Straujuma said the idea that Latvia could return to Russia is "unacceptable".

"I am delighted about the wise decision of my country and other Baltic states to join the EU and Nato. Nato is the guarantee of our security. I have discussed this with [German Chancellor] Merkel and US vice-president Biden and there is a unanimous agreement that Article 5 of Nato [defending militarily a Nato member under attack] will work."

Referring to the 26 percent of the Latvian population that is ethnically Russian, the prime minister said the "situation is peaceful and stable".

"I have met with local municipality leaders who are Russian, in the east of Latvia, and they did not voice any worries that there could be any anti-government or anti-Latvian movement there," Straujuma said.

She said her government conducted a survey among the Russian minority to see what their biggest concerns are and they were similar to the rest of the population - healthcare and social issues. Language and citizenship issues ranked only 10-12 on the priority list.

Fighter jets

For his part, defence minister Raimonds Vejonis noted that the air raids by Russian fighter jets - which multiplied at the end of last year - have so far not resumed.

"They are still in Christmas break mode," Vejonis said.

In the nine years before 2014, there were 50 cases of Russian jets flying close to the Latvian airspace. After the Ukraine conflict began last year, there were over 200 cases, the minister said.

He said the jets pose a risk because they do not turn on their transponders and air traffic control does not know who is flying.

As for military spending, Latvia plans to increase its budget from around one percent of GDP to two percent by 2020.

"We want to invest more in air defence, special forces, patriotic education in schools," Vejonis said.

He said Latvia would support an initiative by some eastern EU member states to count defence spending as investments which are not included in the national budget deficit.

"Especially when we have such a security situation and countries need to increase defence spending, it would be good if it was not calculated in the deficit," the minister said. But he admitted that "finance ministers see this differently".

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