Friday

28th Feb 2020

Ukraine boats added to EU-Russia summit preparations

  • Russian navy seized Ukraine boats and sailors in what the EU called naked aggression in November 2018 (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

EU powers and Russia are making preparations for a peace deal on Ukraine, with Moscow to give back three boats to Kiev in the latest step.

The vessels - two small artillery ships and a tug - were captured by the Russian navy last November.

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  • French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel are in charge of EU diplomacy on Russia's war in Ukraine (Photo: Elysee/flickr)

But they will be returned to Ukraine prior to new EU-brokered peace talks in France next month, the border service of Russia-occupied Crimea in Ukraine said on Sunday (17 November).

And they were already being towed into place for the handover, the Reuters news agency added.

The move comes after French president Emmanuel Macron announced on Friday that France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine will hold new peace talks in Paris on 9 December.

"The summit will be held following major progress since the summer in negotiations for a settlement in the east Ukraine conflict," Macron's office said.

It referred, "in particular", to a Russia-Ukraine deal, earlier this month, to pull back soldiers from Petrivske, a village on the contact line between the Ukrainian army and covert Russian forces in east Ukraine.

That, in turn, came after Russia and Ukraine agreed, in October, to hold elections in the Russia-occupied territories in the region.

And the new momentum started in September, when Russia freed 35 prisoners of war and political prisoners, including a well-known Ukrainian film maker, Oleg Sentsov.

"The time has come, the time is right, to work towards reducing the distrust between Russia and Europe, who ought to be partners on a strategic and economic level," French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in Moscow at the time.

France and Germany represent the EU in the so-called 'Normandy process' - a series of peace summits that were launched after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, but which have not been held since 2016.

For his part, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said he had spoken with Macron by phone on Friday and that the French leader had "emphasised that Ukraine could further count on France's support in all matters".

But there was concern in Ukrainian security circles that Macron and Zelensky might sell out Ukraine in a bad deal.

If the self-proclaimed republics in the Russia-occupied Donbas and Luhansk regions in east Ukraine held elections and gained a special status, Russia could use them to stop Ukraine's alignment with the West, a Ukrainian security contact told EUobserver.

"The Russian-controlled republics could gain a veto in a federalised Ukraine which would stop us from taking any further steps toward the EU or Nato," the contact said.

The concern comes amid a train crash in US-Ukraine relations after American president Donald Trump tried to blackmail Zelensky to interfere in upcoming US elections.

Puppet master?

And fears were heightened five days ago when a Ukrainian oligarch who bankrolled Zelensky's election campaign, Ihor Kolomoisky, also spoke of a U-turn in Ukraine's strategic orientation.

Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 after a pro-Western revolution in Kiev led to the signature of an EU association treaty.

But Kolomoisky told the New York Times, a US newspaper, that Ukraine should return to Russia's sphere of influence because neither the EU or Nato would ever let it join.

"You won't take us ... There's no use in wasting time on empty talk. Whereas Russia would love to bring us into a new Warsaw Pact," he said, referring to the Soviet Union's Cold War-era bloc.

"We'll take $100bn [€90bn] from the Russians. I think they'd love to give it to us today," he added on potential Russian subsidies.

"Give it five, 10 years, and the blood will be forgotten," Kolomoisky also said, referring to the 13,000 people killed in Russia-Ukraine fighting so far.

Meanwhile, violence continued as normal on the Ukraine front line despite the diplomatic choreography, international monitors from the Organisation and Security Cooperation (OSCE) noted.

The number of ceasefire violations remained at the "daily average" for 2018 for the past 30 days, the OSCE said on Saturday.

The Ukraine clash is part of a competition for influence between the West and Russia in the wider region.

And Kolomoisky's declaration that the EU would never take in Ukraine followed a recent French veto on enlargement in the Western Balkans.

EU expansion

The Russian envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, thanked Macron for it in an interview in the Financial Times, a British newspaper, on Sunday.

"President Macron has a point saying that the EU should deal with its own internal matters first before enlarging," Chizhov said.

"And of course, objectively speaking, to say that both North Macedonia, and particularly Albania, are ready for membership would be a gross exaggeration," the Russian diplomat added.

Chizhov spoke after France had said in an informal paper, seen by EUobserver, that the EU should not take in new members until such time as the union had "reformed" itself.

But Paris also proposed to increase EU funding and engagement in the Western Balkans in the same proposals, which spoke of countering "unfavourable external influence" in the region.

Chizhov's comment on Albania and North Macedonia's unreadiness for EU accession misrepresented what the European Commission had said.

The commission only said that they were ready to open accession talks, but such negotiations usually took five or more years to complete.

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