Friday

13th Dec 2019

EU extends Russia sanctions, calls for MH17 justice

  • MH17 flight wreckage in The Hague: The 2014 air disaster prompted EU economic sanctions on Russia (Photo: onderzoeksraad.nl)

EU leaders have rolled over sanctions on Russia, while calling for justice on the MH17 air disaster, and for Russia to stop meddling in Ukraine.

The most painful measures - economic curbs on Russian banks, energy, and arms firms - were extended by six months until January 2020.

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  • Russian state media have been "sowing confusion" on MH17 for years

Related ones, forbidding commerce with Russia-occupied Crimea in Ukraine, were rolled over until June next year.

The sanctions were "unanimously extended" because of "a lack of Minsk Agreements implementation", the spokesman of the EU Council president, Donald Tusk, said.

The Minsk ceasefire accord, which dates back to 2015, obliges Russia to withdraw its 11,000 or so soldiers and irregular fighters from east Ukraine and to hand back control of the border.

The ongoing warfare has claimed 13,000 lives so far.

The EU also took Russia to task on the MH17 air disaster, its dishing out of Russian passports to Ukrainians in Russia-occupied territories, and its jailing of captured Ukrainian soldiers.

A Dutch-led international investigation earlier this week indicted three Russians on murder charges for their part in delivering the Russian missile which shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in 2014 killing 298 people.

The disaster prompted the EU economic sanctions on Russia in the first place and leaders urged Moscow to "cooperate fully with the ongoing investigation".

They said they would consider the "non-recognition of Russian passports" issued in east Ukraine since the Russian passport project began in April.

They also reiterated their "call on Russia to release the captured Ukrainian sailors unconditionally ... and ensure free passage of all ships through the Kerch Straits".

Russia captured 24 Ukrainians sailors in an unprovoked naval attack last November and wants to swap them for Russians captured in Ukraine.

It has also imposed a partial economic blockade on Ukrainian ports in the Azov Sea, such as Mariupol, by harassing commercial ships trying to get there from the Black Sea via the Kerch passage.

For his part, Russian president Vladimir Putin said the same day on TV that Russian counter-sanctions on EU food suppliers were hurting Europe more than EU and related US sanctions hurt Russia.

"According to expert data, Russia, starting in 2014, has lost about $50bn [€44bn] as a result of all these sanctions and restrictions, while the European Union lost $240bn," he said.

It is unclear what data he used.

The European Commission says EU food exports to Russia dropped by just €6bn a year over the past five years yielding a figure of some €30bn.

The Ukrainian foreign intelligence service has claimed EU and US sanctions cost Russia €150bn, based on signals intercepts of Russian internal communications.

Putin did not mention the captured sailors on Thursday, but he pledged to extend the Russian passport scheme.

"We will grant citizenship to those who want it. As for other Ukrainian citizens [outside the occupied areas] that would like to receive [Russian] citizenship, I talked about this as well. We will grant it to them," he said.

Sowing confusion

The Russian leader attacked the Dutch MH17 enquiry, saying: "We think there is no evidence at all there. Everything that was presented does not prove anything".

"Who allowed flights over an area of hostilities? Was it Russia? No. Where were the fighter planes and where is the absolute proof that the militia men or someone else fired the weapon?", he added.

His attempt to delegitimise the Dutch probe echoed previous Kremlin propaganda.

But Moscow got new ammunition from Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday, who said: "From the very beginning it was a political issue on how to accuse Russia of the wrongdoing".

"Even before they examined it, they already said Russia. And now they said they have proof. It is very difficult for us to accept that," he added.

"I understand - and of course I also feel like that - that relatives [of MH17 victims] are very disappointed about this [Mohamad's comment] and that it sows confusion," the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, said in Brussels.

EU leaders, also on Thursday, pledged to take firmer action against Russian and other "disinformation".

They would "work on measures to ... better protect the EU's information and communication networks, and its decision-making processes, from malicious activities of all kinds", they said.

They also published a report by the Romanian EU presidency which called for a new structure to handle the threat.

The EU foreign service already has a team of 18 officials dealing with Russian propaganda.

But Romania suggested the creation of a "permanent horizontal working party of the Council of the EU" - a group of EU diplomats from each of its 28 countries, which meets regularly, has its own secretariat in Brussels, and can propose new actions by member states.

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