Wednesday

20th Jan 2021

EU steps up pressure on Russia over Ukraine

  • 'We can expect some kind of escalation on the fire line before the elections,' Ukrainian lieutenant general Serhiy Nayev said (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

Europe has stepped up pressure on Russia to free Ukrainian sailors, amid concern of a potential flare-up in the four-year old conflict.

"We expect Russia to immediately and unconditionally release the 24 captured Ukrainian sailors," the EU's ambassador to Russia, Markus Ederer, told Russian deputy foreign minister Aleksandr Grushko in Moscow on Wednesday (30 January).

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  • Russian navy captured the Ukrainian soldiers in a skirmish in November (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

The EU also "expects Russia to ensure unhindered and free passage [for ships] through the Kerch Strait to and from the Azov Sea," Ederer added, according to the EU foreign service in Brussels.

Russia captured the Ukrainian sailors in a naval skirmish in the Azov Sea area in November.

It has put them on trial in Moscow on pain of six years in prison.

It has also harassed commercial shipping to Ukrainian ports in the region, such as Mariupol, causing economic harm.

"If the crew members are not released, the EU should stand ready to look at new, targeted measures against Russia," Denmark's foreign minister, Anders Samuelsen, and Czech foreign minister Tomas Petricek said on a visit to Mariupol this week.

Ederer, the EU ambassador, spoke ahead of an informal EU foreign ministers' meeting in Bucharest on Thursday to mark Romania's EU presidency.

Samuelsen and Petricek also spoke shortly after a three-year anniversary, on 24 January, of a Russian rocket attack on Mariupol which killed 31 civilians.

The EU appeals were met with Moscow's standard response.

'No war at all'

The Russian foreign ministry told Ederer the EU should get tough on "flagrant violations of human rights" in Ukraine instead, without making any detailed allegations.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said: "There is no war between Russia and Ukraine at all".

The Ukrainian government "provoked" the "establishment of two republics in the country's southeast," Peskov added, referring to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LPR).

There is little doubt in the EU or Nato that the DPR and LPR are Russian-controlled and armed entities.

The EU and US have already imposed economic sanctions and blacklists on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military estimates that the DPR and LPR have 32,000 troops, 11,000 of whom are Russian nationals.

The DPR and LPR forces are armed with more tanks than some EU countries, as well as high-end artillery, rocket, electronic warfare, and anti-aircraft systems.

13,000 lives

The four-year conflict has claimed some 13,000 lives and continued to rumble on as Ukraine prepared for presidential elections on 31 March.

There were about 90 explosions on the Donetsk contact line and 25 explosions on the Luhansk one on Wednesday, international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said.

Ukrainian security chiefs fear that Russia could escalate fighting ahead of the Ukrainian elections in order to harm pro-Western candidates.

"We can expect some kind of escalation on the fire line before the elections," lieutenant general Serhiy Nayev, the commander of Ukrainian ground forces in east Ukraine, told EUobserver in a recent interview in Kramatorsk, in east Ukraine.

It would be designed to "influence electoral choices ... to prevent Ukraine's further movement in a Western direction," Nayev added.

"They [Russia] can turn on the conflict ... to make sure the current authorities lose ratings because of people's war fatigue," Yehor Bozhok, the head of Ukraine's foreign intelligence service, the SZRU, also told this website in Kiev.

EU membership

Ukraine's two leading candidates - Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister - publicly back Ukraine's EU and Nato membership.

"We will submit a bid to join the European Union in 2024," Poroshenko said, formally launching his campaign this week.

"Only full EU and Nato membership would completely and irreversibly guarantee the independence of our Ukrainian state," he said.

Poroshenko's side has said Tymoshenko was a Russian Trojan horse, but she has dismissed that as "black" PR.

"I see Ukraine as a part of Western civilisation, a part of the EU and a Nato member", she has also said.

Whether EU states take up the Danish and Czech call for targeted Russian sanctions remain to be seen.

Sanctions were "not on the agenda" of the foreign ministers' meeting in Bucharest on Thursday, which would discuss EU relations with former Soviet countries more broadly speaking, as well as China, Syria, and Venezuela, an EU diplomat said.

Russia-wariness

Ukraine's ambition to come closer to Nato is taking shape amid deeper intelligence and military cooperation.

But its prospects for full EU or Nato membership are in doubt, amid French and German wariness of Russia's reaction, another EU diplomat said.

"Russia would have to completely compromise itself ... or fall apart, while Ukraine would have to emerge as a stable and powerful player in the east," for Ukrainian EU membership to become realistic, the diplomat said.

"But that won't happen in the near future, so [Russian president Vladimir] Putin can sleep easy," the EU contact added.

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