Wednesday

20th Mar 2019

Italy shields Russia from EU sanctions threat

  • Renzi did not think "that the difficult situation in Syria could be solved by additional sanctions" (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Italy has shielded Russia and Syria from a threat of new sanctions, amid warnings by some leaders that Russia was trying to “weaken” the EU.

Leaders said in a joint statement in Brussels on Thursday (20 October) that: “The EU is considering all available options, should the current atrocities [in Syria] continue.”

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  • Merkel: "If human rights violations continue, we need to envisage all ways to respond" (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

They also urged “the Syrian regime and its allies, notably Russia” to “bring the atrocities to an end”, referring to Russian and Syrian airstrikes on the city of Aleppo in Syria that have caused severe civilian casualties.

Germany, France, and the UK had wanted to threaten sanctions more explicitly.

“The EU is considering all options, including further restrictive measures targeting individuals and entities supporting the regime, should the current atrocities continue”, they had suggested saying.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi led the opposition, also shared by some other states, to the “restrictive measures” threat, diplomats said.

He said while leaving the summit that “if we want to speak with Russia, then we have to leave the door open”.

He also said he did not think “that the difficult situation in Syria could be solved by additional sanctions on Russia”.

The French and German leaders had on Wednesday in Berlin tried to convince Russian president Vladimir Putin to stop the bombing.

Germany’s Angela Merkel said after Thursday's EU summit that there was “broad agreement” that if the bombing continued then the EU would consider sanctions.

“If human rights violations continue, we need to envisage all ways to respond, not excluding any possible measures”, she said.

French president Francois Hollande said: “If there were new massacres and bombings, we would have to sanction first certain Syrian officials. Russia would expose itself if it continued its bombing to a response that the EU would have to discuss, but we're not there yet”.

"There were no sanctions tonight, only the will that the truce [in Aleppo] should be extended and that all options can be considered if bombing went on,” he added.

The EU has already imposed blacklists on Syria, as well as blacklists and economic sanctions on Russia for its attack on Ukraine.

Russia ‘weakening’ EU

Renzi had, prior to the summit, called for a broad debate on Russia relations.

Summing up that discussion, EU Council head Donald Tusk said: “Leaders emphasised all sorts of concerns, from [Russia’s] airspace violations, to its disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, its interference in the electoral processes of the EU and beyond, hybrid tools in the Western Balkans, and developments in the MH17 investigation”.

Hybrid warfare is a phrase coined by Russia for a mix of propaganda, economic, and covert military operations.

MH17 was a civilian flight shot down using a Russian weapon from a Russia-controlled location in Ukraine two years ago, with Russia trying to obstruct an international investigation into the incident.

“It’s clear that Russia’s strategy is to weaken the EU. We have a sober assessment of the issues and no illusions,” Tusk said.

“Increasing tensions with Russia is not our aim, we are simply reacting to steps taken by Russia,” he added.

Merkel and Hollande voiced concern about violence in east Ukraine.

Merkel said: “There is a desire to have good cooperation with Russia, we are part of the same landmass, but we are aware that the way Russia perceives itself now, it's not suited to be described as being in the spirit of partnership”.

Dutch question

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, also updated leaders on his plans for handling the referendum on Ukraine.

Dutch people, in April, rejected the EU’s free-trade and political association pact with Ukraine in a non-binding vote.

The treaty is central to Ukraine’s realignment to the West, but unless Rutte can find a way to accommodate voters and MPs’ concerns, his hands are effectively tied on ratification.

Last month, the Dutch parliament adopted a resolution demanding Rutte's final decision by 1 November.

He has proposed to ratify it after adding a declaration signed by EU leaders that would say the treaty does not mean Ukraine would join the EU.

It would also say the Netherlands would not pay extra money to Ukraine and that the Dutch could opt out of military cooperation.

Diplomats said EU leaders and Ukraine could agree to the Dutch protocol, but Rutte lacked a majority in the Dutch senate.

Most EU states have already ratified the Ukraine treaty, which is being provisionally applied. It could keep on being applied if member states voted to do so despite the Dutch vote.

EU shames Russia on Aleppo 'massacre'

The EU has named Russia as being partly responsible for a “massacre” of “historic” proportions in Syria, but ruled out extra sanctions or military force.

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The Kremlin's money problems

Behind Putin’s bluster, the Russian president is keen to see sanctions lifted because his country's economy is bleeding badly.

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