Foreign ministers to discuss Ukraine as stances diverge

A year after initial sanctions, some states seek closer links with Moscow

A policeman passes between cars destroyed in an attack on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol last weekend, in which 30 people died. Photograph: EPA/Sergey Vaganov

A policeman passes between cars destroyed in an attack on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol last weekend, in which 30 people died. Photograph: EPA/Sergey Vaganov

 

EU foreign affairs ministers travel to Brussels today for an emergency meeting on Ukraine, prompted by last weekend’s attack on the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. The attack on a residential area in the southeast of the country, which left more than 30 dead, potentially opens a new phase in the festering conflict in Ukraine.

On Sunday, the EU warned of a “further grave deterioration” in relations between the EU and Russia following the attacks. EU ambassadors met in Brussels this week to discuss possible further sanctions on Russia, with ministers expected to recommend an extension of the sanction regime today.

On Tuesday night US president Barack Obama spoke by phone with German chancellor Angela Merkel – both warned Russia should be held accountable for actions in the east of the country.

Russia remains defiant, blaming the Ukrainian government for the surge in violence in the Mariupol and Donetsk region.

The escalation of violence in east Ukraine comes at a significant moment for EU-Russian relations. The approach of the first anniversary of Russian sanctions last March has focused minds in Brussels on relations with Russia.

Geopolitical ally

Federica MogheriniMoscow

As with many questions of foreign policy, the EU is divided on the Russian question. With memories of Soviet rule still fresh, countries in the east and particularly northeast of the EU have taken a hardline approach to engagement with Russia.

Speaking alongside Enda Kenny in a panel debate in Davos last week, Finnish prime minister Alex Stubb was unequivocal about his views. Russia, he suggested, needs the EU more than Europe needs its neighbour, arguing the Russian economy was already in freefall before the effect of EU sanctions. His comments were echoed by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte who, while rejecting any link between the sanctions and the shooting-down of Malaysian Airline flight MH17 last summer, said the sanctions should remain.

Conversely, countries such as the Czech Republic and Bulgaria are calling for a conciliatory approach to Russia, with the Greek government adding its voice in the last few days. As the fallout from Syriza’s victory in Sunday’s general elections continued, the new Greek government gave its European partners an extra headache by condemning EU plans to extend sanctions.

Negotiating ploy

Greece

As Europe considers its next move toward Russia, the role of European Council president Donald Tusk could be significant. Following a phonecall to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on Saturday in the wake of the weekend’s violence in eastern Ukraine, Tusk tweeted that “appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence. Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions.”

The tone and language used could hardly be more different than that of Mogherini. Whether the two senior EU figures with responsibility for foreign policy can share a common vision in approaching the next phase in Europe’s relations with Moscow remains to be seen.

Events in Ukraine this weekend have threatened to discredit Mogherini’s proposed policy of engagement as naive and misguided. While EU foreign ministers meet today under her direction, EU leaders are expected to endorse today’s proposals on sanctions at a European Council summit led by Tusk in two weeks’ time.

How the balance of power between the two EU institutions tasked with shaping EU foreign policy plays out in the coming weeks could play a role in determining the next stage in EU-Russian relations.

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