More pressure on Russia

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 01:00

Wary that Moscow’s promises of co-operation with inquiries into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and in encouraging separatists into talks may be inhibited by further sanctions, EU foreign ministers on Tuesday took only half a step towards tightening the screw on Russia. The EU pledged to expand its sanctions blacklist to target Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and draw up further broad measures including an arms embargo and financial restrictions on Russian businesses, but put off a decision on implementation.

The more cautious ratcheting up of sanctions reflects continuing divisions among Europeans over how best to deal with Russia, in part because of extensive trading interests, but also because of fears that increased sanctions could trigger tit-for-tat measures, not least an oil and gas cut-off by Russia, threatening an economic meltdown with global implications. Russia is already paying a significant price in the markets, with nervousness about further sanctions pulling shares down and Moscow scrapping a debt auction on Tuesday citing “unfavourable” market conditions as yields head for the biggest monthly jump since May 2013.

The finger of blame for the missile attack is now pointed yet more firmly and plausibly at Moscow-backed separatists: US intelligence services on Tuesday outlined compelling evidence from communications intercepts and satellites pinpointing the location of missiles responsible for the attack to territory controlled by separatists. Local eyewitness testimony to the presence of a Buk missile system in the area has also been carried by several newspapers.

The US has also identified a Russian military installation near the city of Rostov as the main source of training and weapons. It has expanded dramatically over the past month after Russia had pledged to pull back from Ukraine. US officials told the Washington Post Russia appears to have “felt compelled to increase the level of support” for separatists because Ukraine’s military has become increasingly effective against the rebels, retaking the city of Slovyansk. They confirm evidence that those involved in shooting down MH17 believed they were attacking a Ukrainian military aircraft.

Continued pressure on Russia from the EU must also be accompanied by strong warnings to Kiev that its forces in eastern Ukraine – including some worryingly independent far-right nationalist militias – must exercise restraint and abide by the rules of war in not targeting civilians. Reports from civil society groups and journalists, including our own Daniel McLaughlin, speak of widespread fear among residents trapped in embattled Donetsk. Nothing would be more certain to permanently entrench the bitter divisions between the country’s two communities than an ill-disciplined pogrom by government forces.

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