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22nd Feb 2020

Poland: Russian military drill designed to spook EU leaders

  • Kopacz (r) took over from Donald Tusk, who is now EU Council president (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Poland has said Russia’s military drill is designed to cow EU leaders into taking a softer line on sanctions at this week’s summit.

The Polish PM, Ewa Kopacz, told reporters in Warsaw on Tuesday (17 March): “I’m certain that Russia is making these kinds of gestures … in order to influence a little the decision of the European Council, which relates to extending sanctions, or, eventually, if there’s no peaceful solution and no respect of Minsk 2 [a ceasefire accord], imposing more painful economic sanctions”.

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For his part, Edgars Rinkevics, the foreign minister of Latvia, which currently chairs the EU presidency, said member states are “not happy” about the Russian troop movements.

But he didn’t share Kopacz’s analysis.

"I don’t think this is a positive step, but we cannot link sanctions policy on non-recognition of Crimea and the situation in Ukraine to [Russia’s] military drills”, he added, Russian state news agency Tass reports.

Russia on Monday announced a five-day long exercise by its Northern Fleet and by airborne forces, in manouevres involving 40,000 troops, 41 warships, 15 submarines, and 110 warplanes and helicopters.

Part of the drill involves sending nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad.

In a separate move, Moscow on Tuesday also said it would station long-range nuclear bombers in Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine last year.

EU leaders have not yet agreed their joint summit statement on Russia sanctions.

Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and Spain have criticised them in recent weeks.

But German chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin on Monday: “The sanctions and the implementation of the Minsk plan must be connected … We’ll have to discuss what happens if it’s not fulfilled and if there are crass violations then we’ll have to speak about further sanctions”.

EU economic sanctions on Russia expire in July unless they are prolonged by consensus.

One senior EU source told EUobserver there is unlikely to be a deal on how to proceed already at this week’s summit. But he said capitals are close to reaching agreement to extend them from July until the end of the year.

He added that additional measures could be imposed if Russia suddenly escalates the situation.

“The [European] commission has done its homework and in case the shit hits the fan, we've got a proposal ready for deepening of sanctions”.

Barring other surprise drills, Russia’s next big show of force is likely to be its 9 May parade to commemorate the end of World War II.

Its defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said on Tuesday the solemnities will see 80,000 soldiers and 2,000 pieces of hardware on show in 28 cities, with 15,000 soldiers in Red Square alone.

Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov noted that just four EU leaders - from Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Slovakia - will come.

He blamed the low turnout on transatlantic hawks, saying: “As for the European countries’ participation, then it is affected by the actions taken by the Americans and the aggressive core of the EU”.

The Greek PM, Alexis Tsipras, on Tuesday said he will also visit Moscow in April, amid ongoing speculation he might accept Russian financial aid.

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