Monday

21st Jan 2019

Violence, recriminations ahead of EU talks on Russia

  • EU ministers are not expected to publish formal conclusions on Ukraine (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

An upsurge in fighting in east Ukraine and the collapse of a summit in Astana bode ill for EU talks on how to improve relations with Russia.

The Russia-controlled rebels attacked Ukrainian positions 84 times in the past 24 hours, including with “heavy armaments”, the Ukrainian military said in a statement on Tuesday (13 January) morning.

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It said later in the day that a rebel-fired rocket or shell hit a bus near a Ukrainian government-controlled checkpoint near the town of Buhas killing 10 civilians - a charge the rebels denied in Russian media.

Speaking in Warsaw the same day, Nato’s military commander, general Philip Breedlove accused Russia of keeping up supplies to the anti-Ukrainian forces.

He said, according to Reuters, that Moscow is involved in "continued resupply, continued training and continued organisation of the forces east of the line of conflict”.

The bad news came one day after French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian foreign ministers failed to see eye-to-eye at a four-hour meeting in Berlin.

The meeting was to the pave way for a summit in the same format in Kazakhstan on Thursday.

But the summit was cancelled, with a Berlin joint statement saying “further work needs to be done to this end”.

For his part, Russian FM Sergei Lavrov indicated lack of progress was due to Ukraine’s refusal to cede territory to rebel-proclaimed entities by federalising Ukraine.

“A political process, a constitutional reform process should … grant special status to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics”, he told Russian media.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the meeting as a “a very long and open exchange with clashes of opinion”.

His office added that the ministers’ main task in the coming days is “preventing further escalation of the conflict”.

The tense atmosphere comes a few days before EU foreign ministers in Brussels on 19 January hold “strategic” talks on the crisis.

The EU foreign service has prepared a discussion paper to underpin the talks.

According to the Wall Street Journal, which obtained a draft of the paper on Tuesday, it speaks only of how to mend Russia ties and does not mention the possibility of imposing further EU sanctions if the situation detriorates.

It suggests existing sanctions should be split into those linked to the annexation of Crimea and other measures.

It says the Crimea ones are set to stay as there is “no change is expected in the short term” on the annexation. But it says the others should be gradually lifted “as soon as Russia implements the Minsk agreements [a 12-point peace plan agreed in Belarus in September]”.

It also suggests resuming talks on visa-free travel and establishing formal relations with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union if things go well.

The EU foreign service’s Russia-friendly approach is not shared by all, however.

One EU diplomat told EUobserver there is some annoyance that EU foreign service chief Federica Mogherini did not give member states the chance to amend the paper before it is circulated to ministers.

The EU Council chief, Poland’s Donald Tusk, also sounded a tougher note in his new year remarks to MEPs in Strasbourg on Monday.

“For the sanctions, we agreed that the best thing for now is to 'stay the course'. We will decide the next steps in March”, he said, referring to last December’s summit.

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