Merkel and Hollande threaten new Russia sanctions
Talks with Russia in Berlin on the eve of an EU summit ended with threats of new sanctions over Syria and negligible progress on Ukraine.
The French and German leaders, representing the EU, and the Russian and Ukrainian presidents spoke for several hours in the German capital on Wednesday (19 October).
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The mini-summit, the first of its kind in over a year, came amid Russia’s bombing campaign in Aleppo, Syria, and amid another flare-up in fighting in east Ukraine.
French president Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel told press in the early hours of Thursday that the EU might impose new sanctions on Russia over its killing of civilians in Syria.
“Everything that can constitute a threat can be useful,” Hollande said.
“What is happening in Aleppo is a war crime … the bombardments by the regime and its [Russian] backers must end,” he said.
Merkel said the Syria talks were “clear and harsh”, adding: “We cannot remove this option [Russia sanctions]”.
She said the Ukraine talks made scant progress. “There was no miracle today … [But] it’s necessary to keep having such talks in order not to lose momentum”, she said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said he might extend a pause in Aleppo air strikes to let in aid, but he also said “there was not much progress” on Syria.
He said “we could not achieve much” on Ukraine either, while urging Kiev to hold local elections in Russia-occupied regions in east Ukraine.
Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko said: “Our position is that all foreign military units should be withdrawn before the elections”.
Poroshenko said the Berlin meeting had agreed a new “roadmap” on how to implement the so-called Minsk ceasefire accord on Ukraine.
He gave few details, but said the deal included better access for international monitors, the OSCE, and demilitarisation at four points along the 500-km contact line.
Hollande and Merkel will debrief EU leaders at a debate on Russia in Brussels on Thursday.
The talks are not designed to yield formal conclusions or decisions on whether to extend or expand Russia sanctions, but will set the stage for future action.
A senior diplomat from one Russia-friendly EU state said on Wednesday the talks are “long overdue, very sensitive”.
“Russia is here to stay, this issue has to be looked at in itself, not just linked to Ukraine”, the diplomat said.
A senior diplomat from a Russia-wary EU country said the “Syrian bloodshed, Aleppo, are increasing the perspective that Russia is a strategic problem”.
The diplomat added that EU leaders will discuss Russia’s anti-EU propaganda and influence operations inside Europe.
“We believe that our democratic system is strong enough to withstand this pressure and I have confidence in our intelligence services”, the diplomat said.
Speaking on Wednesday in the European Parliament, Alexander Hug, the deputy head of the OSCE mission in Ukraine, said there had been a “rapid deterioration” in the Donetsk region in the run-up to the Berlin talks.
He said both sides were guilty of ceasefire violations in recent fighting, but he said around two thirds of Minsk-banned restrictions and denials of OSCE access had come from the Russian side.
“That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact”, he said.
He showed MEPs drone images of electronic jamming stations (EJM) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems being used by pro-Russia fighters.
Oleksii Makeiev, a Ukrainian official, told MEPs that Russian forces had killed 173 soldiers in Ukraine this year and 3,200 in total.
He said the high-tech EJM and SAM systems belied Russia’s claim that it has no troops in east Ukraine.
“We are facing an army that’s better equipped than most EU member states’ armies … Our soldiers are defending not just me and my family, they’re protecting Europe from Russian aggression”, he said.
Makeiev ridiculed Russia’s call to hold elections in the current security climate.
“I invite MEPs here to accompany one of our Ukrainian politicians on a trip to [Russia-occupied] Donetsk. Let’s see what happens when he pitches his tent, unfurls a Ukrainian flag, and calls for a united Ukraine”, Makeiev said.
Speaking also at the EU parliament, Andrey Piontkovsky, a Russian analyst, said Putin had changed tactics on Ukraine.
He said Russia had tried to foment a broad uprising by Russian-speakers in Ukraine that would have let him occupy territory as far west as Odessa and Kharkiv.
He said that when the Russian-speakers failed to respond, he opted to instead create puppet entities in Russia-occupied Luhansk and Donetsk to destabilise Ukraine from within.
“He wants to insert the occupied territories as a cancerous tumour into the body of Ukraine [via the elections] … and by this way to block its political and economic development”, Piontkovsky said.
Andrey Illarionov, a Russian analyst and a former Kremlin aide, told MEPs that EU economic sanctions were helping to push Russia’s budget deficit to 3.7 percent of GDP next year.
He said the best way to curb Russian aggression would be to expand EU visa bans and asset freezes against Russian elites, including Putin.
"There should be personal sanctions not just against the second or third tier in the Kremlin, but against the political leadership of the regime and against its financial bag-men in the West”, Illarionov said.