Ukrainian peace talks raise tension, with some EU states wary of Russia

Reuters, Brussels

Mon, Oct 07, 2019 - Page 5

French and German attempts to end the conflict in east Ukraine risk increasing tensions that were already rising in the EU over how to handle Russia and which could complicate peace efforts.

Progress at talks between Russian and Ukrainian envoys have raised hopes of convening the first international summit in three years on ending the fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

Some EU states, while welcoming a summit that would involve France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, are worried by growing talk that the EU might partially lift sanctions imposed on Moscow since its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

EU divisions over how to deal with Moscow have been growing with overtures to the Kremlin in recent months, led by Paris.

Comments by French President Emmanuel Macron have especially upset governments in EU countries that were once Soviet satellite states or constituent republics.

Alarmed by what they see as an increasingly aggressive Russian foreign policy, they reject anything that might smack of appeasement.

“Are we to reward Russia because they have not done anything grotesque in the past few months?” one EU diplomat asked.

The tension could make it harder for the EU to agree to new sanctions if Russia intensifies what are often depicted by Western leaders as efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to undermine Western institutions such as the 28-nation bloc.

The strain could also further divide the bloc — with a group of French-led, relatively Russia-friendly allies such as Italy on one side, and the Baltic states, Poland and Romania on the other.

This in turn could weaken the resolve of Western-backed governments to stand up for Ukraine, diplomats said.

EU diplomats still expect leaders of the bloc to extend sanctions on Russia’s energy, financial and defense sectors for another six months at a regular summit in December.

While Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel say there could be no sanctions relief until Russia implements a peace deal for Ukraine agreed in 2014 and 2015, both see sanctions as impeding better relations with Moscow.

The measures, imposed over the annexation of Crimea and Russian support for the separatists fighting in Ukraine, require all EU governments to agree. Any friction could allow just one country, possibly Moscow’s ally Hungary, to end them.

“The time has come for the German government to pressure the EU for a partial lifting of the sanctions,” said German lawmaker Peter Ramsauer, whose center-right Christian Social Union is a member of Germany’s ruling coalition.

Baltic states, once part of the Soviet Union, fear a Russian trap to block Ukraine’s ambition to join NATO and the EU.

The country of 42 million has borders both with Russia and countries in the EU and NATO.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told EU diplomats last month that while Russia was a security threat, it “remains a neighbor too and we must deal with this reality.”

In a letter to EU diplomats last month, the EU’s ambassador to Moscow also called for a “pragmatic” approach to Russia.

EU diplomats from eastern, Baltic and Nordic nations have said they are confused by Macron’s approach, questioning what has changed in Russia to merit a renaissance in relations.

The conflict in east Ukraine has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014.

Putin has ruled out returning Crimea, gifted to Ukraine in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

The EU’s five-point strategy to deal with Russia involves so-called selective engagement, and many EU diplomats say that is the best way forward, seeking Russian collaboration on issues such as climate change to rebuild trust.