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16th Feb 2019

France puts spotlight on Ukraine in Russia peace talks

  • Ayrault in Paris gave Ukraine a deadline on the warzone-elections in the run-up to EU decision on Russia sanctions (Photo: Parti Socialiste)

Peace talks in Paris on Thursday (3 March) saw France give Ukraine a deadline on holding warzone-elections in the run-up to an EU decision on Russia sanctions in July.

In a separate event, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said Ukraine won’t join the EU for at least 20 years.

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  • Juncker (l) said in The Hague Ukraine won't join EU or Nato for 20 years (Photo: European Commission)

French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told press after meeting his German, Russian, and Ukrainian counterparts in Paris that Kiev must deliver on a promise to hold local elections in what are in effect Russia-occupied regions in east Ukraine.

“We underlined the importance of adopting an electoral law to hold local elections by the end of the first half of 2016,” he said, according to French media.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov echoed Ayrault.

He told Russian media that Kiev must implement the so-called Minsk ceasefire deal by devolving power to regions, passing a law on local elections in the conflict zone, and granting legal amnesty to the authorities of two self-proclaimed republics in east Ukraine.

He said there’s “no progress” on Minsk implementation due to Kiev’s “unwillingness” to move.

Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin denied Ayrault’s report of an elections deal, however.

Asked if there had been a breakthrough at the Paris event, he said: “No. I don't have that impression.” He added that security conditions in east Ukraine are not adequate to hold a credible vote.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticised both Russia and Ukraine.

“I am not satisfied with the way Kiev and Moscow are operating the negotiations here,” he said after the Paris meeting. He warned that the conflict “can escalate again at any time.”

Russia ‘flouts’ Minsk

France and Germany speak for the EU in the Ukraine peace process, in the so-called Normandy format.

Ayrault’s “first half of 2016” timeline is important because EU economic sanctions on Russia expire in late July.

His statement comes amid concern in Kiev that some EU capitals intend to relax the sanctions on grounds that Ukraine isn't doing its bit.

But a senior US diplomat, Daniel Baer, who represents Washington at the OSCE, a European body created to keep the peace after the Cold War, earlier on Thursday accused Russia of being the main culprit on Minsk non-compliance.

He said that “combined-Russian separatist forces” in east Ukraine, in the run-up to the Paris talks, escalated fighting to its “highest level since August 2015” and that Russia “continues to flout” Minsk provisions on withdrawing troops and armour.

“This violence … calls into question Russia’s and the separatists’ commitment to full implementation of the Minsk agreements,” he said.

US economic sanctions on Russia “will remain in place until … Russia ends its occupation of Ukrainian territory,” he said.

EU ‘soft power’

The Paris talks come amid EU and US efforts to also implement a ceasfire accord in Syria.

Russia, which is conducting air strikes to help its ally, the Syrian regime, reconquer territory has become a leading player in the conflict.

Its warfighting has prompted tens of thousands of refugees to flee toward Europe, in what a top Nato general has said amounts to “weaponising migration” in a bid to break European resolve.

British PM David Cameron, who met French president Francois Hollande in Amiens, France, on Thursday, said the two men and German chancellor Angela Merkel will on Friday hold a teleconference with Russian leader Valdimir Putin.

“We will underline that Russia needs to end its attacks on Syrian civilians,” Cameron said.

The German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, at a lecture in the London School of Economics the same day echoed Nato’s concern.

He said, according to the Reuters news agency, that Putin fears that Europe's "soft power” is moving closer to Russia. "That's why [Putin’s] trying to weaken Europe, by dividing us and tempting us to think only in narrow national terms, and we must not play into his hands," he said.

Juncker factor

Speaking at separate event in The Hague also on Thursday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “Ukraine will definitely not be able to become a member of the EU in the next 20 to 25 years, and not of Nato either.”

He said the EU in the past moved too quickly on enlargement. “We will not make that mistake again,” he said at Thursday’s lecture, which was hosted by the opposition centre-right CDA political party.

His remarks were designed to reassure eurosceptic voters ahead of a Dutch referendum on 6 April on the EU-Ukraine free trade treaty.

The citizen-enforced referendum is non-binding. But a big No vote could cause a “crisis” in EU foreign policy, Juncker said earlier.

Russia 'weaponising' refugees against EU

Russia is “weaponising migration” as part of a broader campaign to extend its influence in Europe, Nato’s military chief has said, echoing German and Turkish concern.

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