Sanctions on Russia to be the biggest unity test at this European Council

Poroshenko Juncker

Meeting between Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine, and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC, last February (EC Audiovisual Services, 12/02/2015)

The relations between the European Union and Russia, as well as the entire, delicate situation in Ukraine, will be discussed at the European Council commencing this Thursday, although no big news are likely to come. EU leaders have not yet agreed on how to proceed on Russian sanctions, but they are unlikely to reach agreement at tomorrow’s table to prolong existing economic sanctions that will expire in July.

Give ceasefire a chance

Last week Reuters reported a senior EU Official saying that new sanctions on Russia will be off the table for now because EU governments want to give a chance to the “fragile ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine. “I don’t think there is unanimity at all for the rollover of sanctions, the sanctions that are due in July,” the official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, stated.

Uncertainty might be even deeper though. Germany’s position last week, as well as some others of the 28 member states’ one, was to promote and to draft a statement saying that EU sanctions on Russia will not be eased unless Moscow complies with a cease-fire deal in Ukraine.

Germany’s call to keep the pressure high

This week things went further though. German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday called on Europe to maintain sanctions on Russia despite a mild decrease in violence in eastern Ukraine. After meeting in Berlin with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday, Ms. Merkel emphasized that too often international monitors are impeded from having access to the areas under the control of the separatists, and that Russia has not a collaborative approach. She then urged European Union heads of state and government to keep pressure high on Moscow.

Existing sanctions extended

A few days before Ms. Merkel’s breakthrough the EU Council had officially extended sanctions imposed against 150 Russian and Ukrainian nationals and 37 entities over their alleged actions in Ukraine until September 15, according to the Official Journal of the European Union. As the official EU statement says, “The Council has prolonged the application of EU restrictive measures targeting action against Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence”. Indeed the decision was a formality after EU foreign ministers agreed in January to extend the sanctions.

Positive signs

Some EU governments have only reluctantly backed EU sanctions so far and most want to leave them as they are for now. Be this strategy too “static” or not, some mildly positive signals are visible. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reported last Friday a “gradual de-escalation” in the conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the country’s eastern part. As reported by AFP, speaking on Ukraine’s private 1+1 television network, Mr. Poroshenko said: “The fact that we have not had military losses for several days … this is a clear indication of a gradual de-escalation”. The remarks came a day after the monitors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that the February 12 ceasefire was “broadly” holding up, despite sporadic clashes in some areas.

Would that be enough?

Mr. Poroshenko formally expressed optimism regarding the February 12 truce, where the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine agreed on the withdrawal of heavy weapons from Ukraine’s frontlines, despite sporadic clashes in some strategic points. Positive signs could not be enough though. The European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has openly spoken about much more direct messages to send to Russia. While interviewed by German newspaper a few days ago, Mr. Juncker said he believes that the EU needs its own army to face Moscow and other threats as well as restore the bloc’s foreign policy standing around the world. “With its own army, Europe could react more credibly to the threat to peace in a member state or in a neighbouring state”, he stressed.

Time for a common EU army…

Mr. Juncker stressed that a common EU army could serve as a deterrent and would have been useful during the Ukraine crisis. Although Mr. Juncker said that a European army would not be created for immediate use, he then pointed directly towards Moscow, pointing that a common army among the Europeans would “convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union”. Despite the European Commission President’s determined view, it is still uncertain how many EU member states would concretely back a common EU army institution. For instance Britain, along with France, has been reluctant to give a sharp military role to the EU, fearing this would undermine good old NATO.

…and time for reflections

What remains sure is that the complex Russia-Ukraine situation is once again a strong cause for reflection for the EU to understand what role it should play during international crises. Too often it seemed impossible for the bloc to find a common strategy and to speak with one voice. The uncertainty behind the decision on whether to prolong or not the sanctions, or the fragmented and embarrassed reactions around the common EU army are a sign that cannot be ignored.

Peacekeeping

In the meantime, last Friday, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis said Kiev has placed a formal request to the United Nations for a peacekeeping mission to be stationed in its eastern regions. Mr. Perebiynis announced that a preliminary request for the mission had been delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and another would follow after Ukrainian parliament’s ratification.

The hope now is that the next European Council will help EU regain some unity, and that the bloc could be UN’s best interlocutor on the way to the resolution of the crisis.

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