Wednesday

22nd May 2019

US has little faith in Hollande-Merkel trip to Russia

  • Biden (l) is sceptical that Putin wants to make peace (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

US vice president Joe Biden has indicated he has little faith that France and Germany can persuade Russia to halt its offensive in Ukraine.

“[Russian] president Putin continues to call for new peace plans as his troops roll through the Ukrainian countryside and he absolutely ignores every agreement that his country has signed in the past and that he signed recently, including in Minsk”, Biden said in Brussels on Friday (6 February).

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  • The EU and US are also in talks on a free trade zone (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

He said Ukraine is “fighting for survival” against Russian “mercenaries and tanks and, as we say in the US, ‘little green men’ - soldiers without patches, which are sophisticated Russian special operations”.

“This is a moment in which the EU and US must stand together. Russia can’t be allowed to redraw the map of Europe - that’s exactly what they’re trying to do”.

Biden spoke alongside EU Council chief Donald Tusk, who noted “the situation is even more dramatic than 11 months ago”.

Russia in January launched a new offensive in south-east Ukraine. Kiev says that some 8,000 regular Russian soldiers are fighting alongside Russia-controlled paramilitaries in the region.

French president Francois Hollande and German leader Angela Merkel also on Friday arrived in Moscow to try to broker a ceasefire.

Both of them, like Biden, lowered expectations.

Merkel, speaking in Berlin before she left for Russia, said: “It’s totally open as to whether we will, with these talks, succeed in achieving a ceasefire … We can only do what we can to resolve this conflict and especially to end the bloodshed”.

Referring to Putin, Hollande said in Paris “if we don’t [succeed], at least we’ll know who’s responsible”.

The French and German leaders are to put forward an amended version of the Minsk protocol - a 2014 peace accord which calls for Russia to pull back its forces and to hand back control of the border in return for limited autonomy for east Ukraine.

Some EU diplomats are even more sceptical.

One contact told EUobserver that Putin, in mid-January, sent Ukraine a new ceasefire plan, with an attached map, which proposed moving the de facto border deeper into Ukraine.

“It shows he’s no longer interested in the Minsk deal”, the EU source said.

The diplomat added that with Russian forces making military gains in recent weeks Putin has no incentive to back down.

“Hollande and Merkel are going at a bad time because they have no leverage. There is no EU agreement on further economic sanctions and there is no agreement on delivering weapons to Ukraine".

“They can’t say: ‘If you don’t pull back, this is what we’ll do’. So if Putin agrees to stop, it will come at a high price”.

No leverage

EU states plan to blacklist a handful of extra Russian names next week.

The top man on the list is Russian deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov.

Greece threatened to block the visa bans until the last minute and forced hawkish EU states to keep more senior Russian names off the register.

EU institutions have also been tasked with drawing up options for fresh economic sanctions.

But they are unlikely to be ready before March, while EU diplomats say that Greece - and other Russia-friendly EU countries, such as Cyprus - might veto the initiative.

“Russia will offer Greece anything it wants, anything, in return for its support”, the EU diplomat said, referring to a recent Russian offer to help Greece manage its debt.

For his part, Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades told the Cyprus Weekly newspaper on Friday there are “many” EU states which “support diplomatic ways [to resolve the crisis] and not additional sanctions against Russia”.

“We want to avoid further deterioration of relations between Russia and the European Union”.

The Russia-friendly camp also includes Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

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