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12th Aug 2022

German minister looks to 'relax' EU sanctions on Russia

  • Gabriel (l) with Merkel in the German parliament (Photo: bundesregierung.de)

German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel has repeated calls to relax EU sanctions on Russia in return for UN peacekeepers in Ukraine, but chancellor Angela Merkel is more wary of the initiative.

"It is urgently necessary that we look for a new start with Moscow," Gabriel said in Der Spiegel, a German magazine, on Thursday (14 September).

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  • Line of contact: UN said 26 civilians killed in summer (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

"Russian president Vladimir Putin has presented a proposal that will significantly improve the current situation … This should be taken as a basis for discussion", he said.

The EU should consider "gradual relaxation of the sanctions" because Putin "has moved towards us", he said.

Gabriel spoke after Russia tabled a UN resolution calling for lightly armed UN peacekeepers to go to the line of contact.

EU economic sanctions on Russia are conditional on fulfilment of the Minsk agreement, a ceasefire deal.

It says Russia must withdraw troops from Ukraine and cede control of Ukraine's border, in return for Ukraine holding elections in two Russia-controlled territories.

"It is simply unrealistic to say: 'Only when Minsk is implemented 100 percent do these steps follow'. A truly sustainable, lasting armistice would be an important step", Gabriel said.

Gabriel's centre-left SPD party is friendlier toward Russia than Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU party in Germany's ruling coalition.

Putin and Merkel also discussed the UN proposal by phone on Monday.

The Russian president made a snap concession to let the UN blue helmets go beyond the contact line to a wider area, which is currently patrolled by international monitors from the OSCE, a Vienna-based security institution.

"In light of thoughts voiced by Angela Merkel, the Russian leader indicated a readiness to update the functions of the aforementioned UN mission", a Kremlin readout of the phonecall said.

The US has also welcomed the Russian proposal, but Ukraine has voiced reservations on the small print.

"We see it potentially as a pathway to restoring Ukrainian sovereignty and also territorial integrity," a US State Department spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, an aide to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, told the Reuters news agency on Thursday that "the devil is in the detail" of Russia's UN text.

He said UN peacekeepers must patrol the Ukraine-Russia border and that Russian soldiers must not take part in the mission.

He also said EU sanctions should stay in place until the Minsk agreement was fulfilled.

Poroshenko has warned that Putin's UN idea could be a ploy to retain control of occupied territories and to legitimise the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk "republics."

"[The mission's] purpose should not be the preservation of Russia's occupation and the legalisation of the Russian military presence", Poroshenko said on 7 September.

EU sanctions

The EU foreign service has not taken a public position on the UN proposal.

But EU states, on Wednesday, extended the life of visa bans and asset freezes on 149 people and 38 entities deemed responsible for "undermining the territorial integrity of Ukraine".

The list includes senior Kremlin aides and personal friends of Putin.

The situation in Ukraine "did not justify a change in the sanctions regime" the EU said in a statement.

EU economic sanctions on Russia, which restrict credit and technology transfer to Russian banks and energy firms, expire on 31 January.

Civilian casualties

The OSCE sent a team of unarmed monitors to Ukraine in 2014, with 608 observers currently on the ground, 36 of whom are Russian.

The Kiev-based mission said on Wednesday there were "more [Minsk] ceasefire violations in Donetsk and Luhansk regions [than] compared with the previous reporting period".

It recorded 45 explosions in the Donetsk area and seven explosions in the Luhansk region.

A UN human rights agency, the OHCHR, said on Wednesday that 26 civilians were killed and 135 were injured, mostly by artillery fire, in the period from 16 May to 15 August.

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