The European Union Ministers of Foreign Affairs agreed to extend by six months the existing sanctions against Russia. That was the main decision taken during the Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels last week, 29 January 2015, as described by an official announcement released on the same day. In the document the Council notes “evidence of continued and growing support given to the separatists by Russia”. The imposed sanctions, which now will be prolonged until September, are targeting individuals and companies in Russia and eastern Ukraine, imposing travel bans and assets freeze since last year.
The EU decided to urgently call Thursday’s meeting after the situation in the separatist area deteriorated dramatically. Days before this emergency meeting, the five-month-old ceasefire, which was signed in Minsk last September, got broken. A rocket attack in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, launched by suspected rebel forces on Saturday January 24, killed at least 30 people. Ukraine openly blamed Russia for the attack, with Moscow accusing Kiev of escalating violence and tension. Since then, there has been intensified fighting and shelling along the frontline.
The decision of extending the sanctions was broadly discussed across the EU, days before the Brussels meeting, and signs of new actions to be taken were to be found all around. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had earlier referred to the Ukrainian crisis from World Economic Forum in Davos, where she positioned herself in favour of imposing sanctions against Russia as “the only peaceful European way to react on this imminent threat”.
The run-up to the Brussels meeting was largely overshadowed by Greece though. The talks over Ukraine-Russia crisis were indeed the first major contact of the EU with Greece’s freshly elected government; a government that was chosen by people with enormous consensus on a vow to reject the austerity policy long backed by Berlin. The risk that the Ukrainian crisis could have turned into an internal EU political crisis was high. It all began last Tuesday, when the EU members warned of further sanctions against Russia through an official statement. The notice said all 28 governments agreed that Russia was responsible for the shelling in Mariupol – allegations that Russia denies – but the Greek government was the only one to speak out immediately against the statement.
Even before the real cause of the Greek “veto” became clear, there was a big concern that the Greek government would block a joint decision over new sanctions . However, the new Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias denied that his country behaved like “a bad boy”, and argued that Greece distanced itself from the EU texts because it wasn’t properly consulted, not because it didn’t like the content. “The aforementioned statement was released without the prescribed procedure to obtain consent by the member states and particularly without ensuring the consent of Greece,” the country’s government officially announced on the same day.
Mr. Kotzias explained further that the sanctions created a series of financial problems in Greece in the past, and so reportedly he maintained that “when sanctions are imposed, you must be aware of the consequences”. The Greeks were not alone while expressing discontent about new sanctions on Russia, with countries such as Italy and Austria also calling for the decision about tougher sanctions to be delayed, diplomatic sources said.
Finally the situation was resolved in the end. “In the end we managed to convince our Greek colleague to back today’s text”, Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini also appeared relieved that Greece’s concerns had not led to a crack. “Of one thing I can be happy tonight, and that is that we kept our unity which is, as we’ve always said, our strength”, the High Representative of the EU said. “Mr. Kotzias’s attitude was extremely constructive” she added, before depicting the just-gone diplomatic accident as an “extremely positive exercise” that led to “a consensual decision, a substantial decision”.
Thursday’s meeting was a rather big test on the EU’s unity concerning the Ukrainian crisis and some mixed feelings with uncertainty became apparent. The truth is that although the bloc agreed to extend the existing sanctions against individuals and companies, they actually showed little appetite for bigger new economic sanctions on Moscow. They avoided any hint concerning “further restrictive measures”, which had been discussed largely and had appeared in a pre-meeting draft. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias’s decision to sign the EU measure came after the bloc wasn’t imminently moving toward new economic sanctions. On the other hand, there were always countries like Britain and the Baltic states warning a clearer commitment to imposing new sanctions promptly for their own reasons of course.
Last week’s agreement left the final decision to the EU government leaders, who are due to meet on February 12. EU Foreign Ministers agreed to give a final approval of the new list at the next foreign ministers’ meeting on the 9th of February, also foreseeing the possibility of adding the names of additional people who could be targeted with sanctions. The restrictions currently affect 132 people and 28 entities.
The matter looks far from closing though, with the “Greek case” still open. Yesterday Mr. Kotzias stated that the EU must halt “spasmodic” action against Russia. He told Athens News Agency that the EU needs to “finally consider what it wants to do with Russia on a long-term basis”, instead of “reacting in a morally direct, correct, but feverish fashion”.
All in all, one of Mr. Kotzias’s statements last Thursday sounds both as the perfect recap of the current situation in the EU foreign policy thriller and the biggest wild card for the future. “I don’t know what we are going to say in future negotiations,” Mr. Kotzias stressed. “I’m not excluding anything”.