When the European Union’s 28 heads of state and governments meet on Thursday in Brussels, Russia and the conflict in Ukraine will be high on the agenda.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, will be trying to convince the leaders to maintain pressure on Moscow via economic sanctions until at least the end of the year, council sources have told Handelsblatt.
The Minsk deal brokered by Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in the Belarussian capital in February set an end-2015 deadline for Ukrainian border controls with Russia to be restored.
“It is inconceivable that the sanctions could be lifted before the terms of the Minsk agreement have been completely applied. And that will only be the case when the border to Russia is again being monitored by Ukrainian security forces. This dictates the time framework,” a high-ranking official from the council said. The German government supports this course of action, the source said.
It is doubtful, however, that the member states will give formal consent to this approach at their spring summit this week. Approval could come at a summit in June.
European Union leaders imposed economic sanctions on Russia, especially in the energy, weapons and banking sectors, last summer after the country annexed the Crimean peninsula in March and violence escalated in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have taken control of the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Up to 6,000 people have been killed so far in the conflict.
There is general agreement that new economic sanctions would be imposed only in the case of “grave violations” of the Minsk agreement.
The current sanctions are due to expire in July. “An extension as early as possible would be desirable,” said a source close to Mr. Tusk.
There is, however, some division in Europe on dealing with Russia. Poland and the Baltic States are in favor of harsh measures.
Mr. Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, has been one of the strongest critics of Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis. His tough position is backed by Germany and Great Britain. Countries such as Hungary, Italy, Austria and Greece, however, are warning against a premature rush to act.
There is general agreement that new economic sanctions would be imposed only in the case of “grave violations” of the Minsk agreement. Diplomats emphasized that grave breaches don’t include violations of the cease-fire.
The summit should give a clear sign of unanimity, they said. “All participants must clearly recognize that Moscow’s top priority is to drive a wedge between the European Union and the United States, as well as to sow seeds of discord among European countries,” said a source close to Mr. Tusk.
The West and the government in Kiev accuse Moscow of providing weapons and soldiers in support of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia denies it. At Minsk, the Ukrainian government and the rebels in eastern Ukraine agreed, among other things, to withdraw heavy weapons from the front. The Russian and Ukrainian governments also made commitments to better monitor their common border.
At the moment, the cease-fire is being more or less observed along the front. But Kiev complains that its soldiers are repeatedly being attacked by the rebels. Moreover, observers are expressing concern that the separatists could be using the cease-fire to reposition their heavy weapons and regroup.
On Monday, foreign ministers in Brussels addressed the Ukraine issue. It was also on the agenda during talks between the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and Chancellor Merkel in Berlin yesterday.
“We will do everything to give this peaceful solution a chance,” Ms. Merkel said after the talks. “There is no alternative to Minsk,” Mr. Poroshenko said.
Ever since the imposition of sanctions against Russia, German trade with the formerly dependable partner has decreased significantly. Drastic falls in exports have occurred, particularly in machine construction, electronics, the automotive industry and foodstuffs.
Thomas Ludwig is a Brussels based correspondent for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com.