Iana Dreyer in Brussels -
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini rejected suggestions that European sanctions on Russia over its policies in Ukraine could be lifted, but announced on January 19 that diplomatic efforts to engage with Russia would be stepped up in the coming weeks.
Talks between Europe and Russia over global issues, such as the instability in the Middle East, will be continued, while “Options for sectoral dialogues with Russia will be explored at a technical level in a limited number of areas, such as energy,” Mogherini stated.
A leaked working document from the EU’s External Action Service outlining various options for the EU to engage with Russia ahead of the EU’s meeting of foreign ministers on January 19 heightened speculation that the EU was considering lifting its current investment, financial and individual-targeted sanctions on Russia.
These sanctions are due for renewal this spring and summer, and debate over this policy was expected to take place January 20 in Brussels. A fierce debate is raging in Europe over their effectiveness in constraining Russia’s actions in Ukraine. “Those that expected major divisions today on Russia I think will be a little bit disappointed,” said Mogherini. “We were united and we still are united on this.”
“Our relations with Russian can only change if and when – I hope ‘when’, but at the moment it’s ‘if’– commitments that were taken in Minsk are implemented. The latest developments on the ground are definitely not encouraging, rather the contrary,” she said, referring to the recent flare-up of violence and fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was present at the January 19 gathering in Brussels, bemoaned that, “implementation of the Minsk agreement” was “not swift enough.”
There has been progress on the exchange of hostages, Steinmeier told the press. On other items on the list of commitments included in September’s Minsk Protocol that was designed to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine – notably setting up a demarcation line, reducing the number of fighters, letting the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitor the ceasefire and allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid – there was no progress, he said.
Talks to resolve the situation in East Ukraine held in Berlin the previous week were halted for this reason. Steinmeier could not confirm whether a new meeting of foreign ministers of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia could be held this week, as Berlin had hoped. “We need credible signals that there is in reality willingness to move ahead, willingness to implement [the] Minsk [Protocol].”
The decision to stick to sanctions will nonetheless be complemented by seeking a global dialogue with Russia on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and issues like climate change. Mogherini said the EU was looking into sectoral dialogues with Russia, such as on energy, and into policies to promote people-to-people contacts to engage the Russian population.
Work on “strategic communication” to “promote correct, impartial and independent information,” in Mogherini’s words, will begin soon. Concrete measures envisaged include supporting freedom of the press in the EU neighbourhood.
There are increasing calls for the EU to take a more proactive, strategic approach towards Russia. Among those is the young foreign minister of Austria, a country reputedly critical of Russian sanctions. Sebastian Kurz said that the EU needed to “enter a more proactive phase” towards Russia. “It is not about increasing or easing [of sanctions], but of getting out of a purely reactive mode,” he stressed.
Kurz insisted the Minsk agreement that Russia signed up to needs to be implemented, and did not question the continuation of the current sanctions policy. In his view the EU needs to start thinking about stabilising its medium- to long-term relationship with Russia and engage with its Eurasian Economic Union project. There is a need to overcome what he termed “bloc mentality,” which he believes is bringing countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia “close to breaking point.”
The EU has suspended its bilateral dialogues and programmes with Russia as well as planned negotiations towards a bilateral treaty since the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014.
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