Russia has made constructive moves in recent days towards reducing tensions in Ukraine, US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday (16 December), and he raised the possibility that Washington could lift sanctions if Moscow keeps taking positive steps.
Speaking in London, Kerry said the United States and Europe could lift sanctions within days or weeks if President Vladimir Putin keeps taking steps to ease tensions and lives up to commitments under ceasefire accords to end the Ukraine conflict.
“These sanctions could be lifted in a matter of weeks or days, depending on the choices that President Putin takes,” Kerry told reporters.
“Their sole purpose here is to restore the international norm with respect to behavior between nations,” to ensure respect for borders, sovereignty and rights, he said.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama was expected to sign legislation this week authorizing new sanctions on Russia over its activities in Ukraine and providing weapons to the Kyiv government.
Obama would have to decide whether to impose the new sanctions. He has said he does not want to take new steps that are not synchronized with European partners.
French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a four-way telephone call with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday evening, Hollande’s office said.
The two Western leaders called for a rapid resumption of contacts under the September Minsk ceasefire agreement.
Hollande and Merkel “stressed the importance of moving forward without losing any more time,” the statement added.
Easing of sanctions?
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there was no discrepancy between Kerry’s comments and the White House announcement over possible new sanctions.
“Russia has a choice. There are specific steps they can make to implement the Minsk protocols,” Psaki said.
“They can do that. That’s in their power, and if they do that, obviously that will have an impact on the actions we take,” she told reporters in Washington.
Psaki said the United States viewed reports of a decrease in violence in eastern Ukraine as a positive step and an opportunity for a lasting political solution.
“But I don’t want to overstate that,” she said. “And that’s one of the reasons he (Kerry) also reiterated ongoing concerns we have,” she said at a news briefing.
Poroshenko on Tuesday hailed a brief period of calm in which there was no shooting in eastern Ukraine as a positive signal.
The United States and Europe imposed sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and Kremlin backing for armed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions. Moscow’s actions have provoked the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Russia’s currency, the rouble, plunged against the dollar on Tuesday.
Asked about the rouble’s collapse, Kerry cited not only Western sanctions but also factors such as sliding oil prices and the Russian economy.
“There are a lot of combined factors, but the sanctions were clearly intended to invite President Putin to make a different set of choices.”
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
The fighting has escalated sharply after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists. The EU's resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine on 17 July of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.
Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.
On 27 August NATO and the U.S. said Russian incursions into Ukraine took an ‘overt and obvious form’ and on 28 August Poroshenko said Russia had invaded Ukraine.
A truce was agreed on 5 September, but the situation has remained volatile.
- 18-19 December: EU summit, situation in Ukraine likely to be discussed.