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25th Aug 2019

Russia finds few friends in EU sanctions talks

  • Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn (l) and Germany's Steinmeier in Brussels on Monday (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

Even Russia’s friends, for the most part, showed little appetite for relaxing sanctions in “strategic” EU talks in Brussels on Monday (19 January).

Summing up the debate, EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini told press there was a “consensus” they should stay in place until Russia pulls back from east Ukraine.

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  • The decision on whether to renew the Russia sanctions for another year will be taken by leaders at a summit in March. (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

She said ministers are happy to talk to Russia on “global” issues, such as counter-terrorism or climate change.

But with fighting flaring up in Ukraine and with Kiev reporting that two battalions of Russian troops invaded its territory as the ministers were meeting in the EU capital, she added that “the latest developments on the ground are not encouraging” in terms of EU-Russia ties.

“There is no normalisation. There is no back to business as usual”.

The Czech Republic, Germany’s foreign minister, and Hungary - who had criticised EU sanctions in recent months - sent out similar messages.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: "Given the current situation in east Ukraine, nobody expressed the desire to loosen some of the Russia sanctions”.

Hungary’s Peter Szijjarto added that Russia has done nothing to comply with last year's so-called Minsk peace deal. “Without it, there can be no positive change”, he said.

Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni, who in December said the EU should “re-engage” with Russia, abstained from the subject and devoted his press briefing to counter-terrorism.

Austria, Luxembourg, and Spain spoke more gently on Russia but stopped short of calling for a sanctions roll-back.

Austria said the EU should start thinking “how to put the relationship with Russia back on a solid footing in the long term”.

Luxembourg noted the EU must show Moscow the sanctions are not meant to “destabilise” Russia, while Spain said the EU should split its sanctions in two - on the annexation of Crimea (to stay in place) and on east Ukraine (to change in line with the situation).

The thrust of the debate saw the more hawkish EU states claim vindication.

Poland’s foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, told media: “No one said sanctions should be reduced, suspended, or removed. There was no such voice. The most was that our policy on Russia should not be based only on sanctions. Those were the softest comments”.

Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK echoed his assessment in their press statements.

“We need to maintain a disciplined position in the face of continued Russian refusal to deliver on its commitments”, the UK’s Philip Hammond said.

Bulgaria contradicted Spain on Crimea, saying “it cannot be excluded from the sanction formula”. Ireland said the sanctions should be “kept under review and, if need be, augmented and intensified”.

Leak diplomacy

The discussion came in the light of a Mogherini options paper which proposed lifting the punitive measures and returning to the full gamut of EU-Russia meetings if things improve.

But the fact it was leaked to the Wall Street Journal before EU capitals had read it harmed its standing.

Poland’s Schetyna said the leak was “incredible”.

“The [Mogherini] paper was totally different to the nature of the discussion today. I don’t think we would have had such a tough response if it hadn’t come out in that way”.

Steinmeier also distanced himself from Mogherini's document, saying the mood was different in December when she was tasked with drawing it up.

Meanwhile, the hawkish states got a warm reception for plans to launch EU efforts to counter Russian propaganda.

Mogherini said she will “come with some concrete steps in the next few weeks”.

She said it could be in the form of EU-funded Russian-language broadcasts or a Brussels-based "task-force" to support independent Russian media.

Poland said “more than a dozen” countries spoke in favour of the project.

The Dutch FM, Bert Koenders, described Russian state media’s coverage of the crisis as “horrible ... it’s very important that we support independent Russian press and independent Russian voices".

Leaders will decide whether to renew the Russia sanctions for another year at a summit in March.

Monday’s bad news for Moscow comes amid an ever-worsening economic situation caused by low oil prices.

Ratings agencies Fitch and Moody’s at the weekend downgraded Russian bonds to one notch above junk, while the EBRD, an international lender, forecast Russia's GDP to shrink 5 percent this year.

With oil trading at less than $50 a barrel - a six-year low - Vagit Alekperov, the CEO of Russian oil firm Lukoil, on Monday told the Ria Novosti news agency it "could fall to $25" in the near future.

Russia to cut EU gas transit via Ukraine

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