Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Lone Italy fails to stop Russia sanctions

  • Russia invaded Ukraine four years ago and its missile shot down MH17, killing 298 people (Photo: nato.int)

Italy's new government did nothing to stop the EU extending sanctions on Russia, despite its earlier bravado on the issue.

Rome wanted better "dialogue" with Moscow and more opportunities for Russian people to visit Europe, Italy's prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said in talks in the small hours of Friday's EU summit in Brussels.

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  • 'Sanctions on Russia useless and harmful', Italian interior minister Salvini said in Moscow (Photo: European Parliament)

But he did not play hardball on the issue, as he did on migration, where he threatened to veto EU decisions, sources said.

"Italy said they would not object although they are for an open dialogue with Russia, also they reminded the EU of its commitment to do more for people-to-people contacts and SMEs [small businesses]," one EU diplomat told EUobserver.

"It was quite a quick adoption [of the sanctions decision] and Conte was not against it, he just said something about the importance of having a dialogue with Russia, and that Italy was worried about the impact of sanctions on Russian people," a second EU diplomat said.

Other Russia-friendly EU states, including Cyprus, Greece, and Hungary, kept quiet as France and Germany reported on the situation in Ukraine, a third EU source added.

There were "almost none" leaders who criticised extending the life of the economic sanctions for another six months, the source said.

"The talks lasted two minutes ... Conte was on his own," one of the EU diplomats added.

The EU imposed the measures in 2014 after Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

It later said it might lift them if Moscow fell in line with the so-called Minsk ceasefire deal, which says it must pull its forces out of east Ukraine, but France and Germany, who represent the EU in talks with Russia on the conflict, said there was no good news on that front.

"[French president] Macron and [German chancellor] Merkel reported on Minsk on Friday - no progress, the Minsk agreements are not being implemented," one of the EU diplomats noted.

There were some 550 explosions on the contact line near Donetsk in east Ukraine on 26 and 27 June, including rockets and bursts of automatic grenade launcher and small-arms fire, international monitors in the area also said in a report on Thursday.

The EU leaders' informal decision will be enacted by officials in July, maintaining curbs on international finance for Russia's leading banks and energy and arms firms, among other measures.

It did not appear in the summit's formal conclusions, but the official communique did take Russia to task for the MH17 disaster.

Dutch investigators have said the Russian army supplied the missile to Russia's paramilitary forces in east Ukraine that they used to shoot down a passenger plane, killing 298 people in the summer of 2014.

"The European Council … calls on the Russian Federation to accept its responsibility and to fully cooperate with all efforts to establish truth, justice and accountability" on the tragedy, the leaders said in their conclusions.

Russian propaganda has tried to rubbish the Dutch findings.

But leaders also said that the EU foreign service's small counter-propaganda cell should get more resources to push back against that type of "disinformation".

The conclusions called for an 'action plan' by December on how to give those EU officials trying to debunk Russian lies "appropriate mandates and sufficient resources" to step up their game.

They also called for a new EU plan to allow military hardware and troops to rush across internal borders to confront Russian aggression if it ever spilled beyond Ukraine.

Nato summit

The sanctions renewal comes ahead of a Nato summit on 11-12 July that will shore up Western defences against the threat.

It also comes ahead of a headline-grabbing summit between US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on 16 July.

The two men plan to bring up to 2,000 aides, officials, security staff, and business leaders with them when they come, Finnish news agency Yle reported on Friday, amid doubts on Trump's personal loyalties.

But US armed forces have increased their presence in Russia-deterrent Nato battalions stationed in the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania despite Trump's overtures.

Nato is also preparing to take in Macedonia as a new member as early as 2019 or 2020, Nato head Jens Stoltenberg told press with Macedonian leader Zoran Zaev in Brussels on Friday morning, despite Putin's abhorrence of Nato expansion.

Meanwhile, Italy's toothless criticism of the sanctions came despite pro-Russian bravado by its new populist government.

Italy's two ruling parties - the Five Star Movement (5MS) and the League - spoke out in strident tones against the EU measures ahead of Conte's intervention.

'We're alone'

The League's Matteo Salvini, Italy's de facto leader, whose party has a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party, said in Moscow on 25 June: "The sanctions on Russia are useless and harmful … We're ready to go from words to deeds, but there aren't many who think like us in Europe and we're alone against the whole world".

"Sanctions on Russia damage us," Luigi di Maio, the 5MS chief, whose party has also flirted with a United Russia cooperation pact, said earlier in June.

"We will promote a review of the sanctions system," Conte said ahead of Friday's talks, in what amounted to empty words for now.

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