EU leaders are expected to discuss Ukraine’s problems, and possible future sanctions at an informal summit in Brussels later today (27 May), but diplomats said there was little chance of a strong push for more punitive measures.
Sunday’s election in Ukraine, deemed a success by the European Union, is likely to ease pressure for far-reaching sanctions against Russia.
Council President Herman van Rompuy and Commission President José Manuel Baroso congratulated Petro Poroshenko for having won an overwhelming election victory in the presidential election [read more].
“The successful holding of these elections constitutes a major step towards the objective of de-escalating tensions and restoring security for all Ukrainians,” Barroso and Van Rompuy stated.
The election had been billed as a crucial test of whether Europe needed to step up pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But deep trade ties with Russia and widespread dependence on its energy reserves mute any EU enthusiasm to tighten sanctions.
The bloc’s most senior officials said yesterday they saw the vote as a major step towards reducing tensions between Kyiv and Moscow.
“We welcome statements by the Russian Federation indicating that it will respect the will of the Ukrainian people and engage in a dialogue with the new Ukrainian president,” Barroso and Van Rompuy say in their statement.
Barroso later called Poroshenko to congratulate him that the election took place “largely in line with international standards”, his office said, and reiterated the EU’s commitment to support Ukraine, a reference to the €11 billion euro aid package the EU has offered Kyiv.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed preliminary results showing Poroshenko, a billionaire owner of chocolate factories, could win enough support to avert a run-off election.
An international observer mission, whose verdict was keenly awaited by the EU, praised Ukraine for holding an election it said was largely in line with international commitments despite hostile activity by armed groups in the east.
So far, the EU has imposed limited measures, targeting 61 people in Russia and Ukraine with asset freezes and travel bans, as well as two energy companies in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, taken over by Moscow earlier this year.
In recent weeks, discussions among the EU’s 28 governments focused on specific steps they could take against Russia, including restrictions ranging from luxury goods imports to an oil and gas ban.
But there was no consensus on how to proceed.
Some countries with close trade and energy ties with Russia, such as Italy, Greece and Germany, are worried about the potential impact on their economies of stricter sanctions, and others, such as Cyprus and Austria have close financial links.
“It will become more difficult to argue for sanctions given the fact that it was a fairly decent election,” one EU diplomat told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Without unanimous backing for stricter sanctions, the EU cannot move ahead – a hurdle that has been frustrating the United States, which is keen for Europe to impose more restrictions on Moscow.
The diplomat added, however, that the EU will closely watch whether tensions in Ukraine are subsiding and whether Poroshenko can bring greater stability to the torn country.
That would allow the EU to hold in reserve the threat of broad economic sanctions that could be imposed quickly if fresh troubles flare.
“We have to see how Poroshenko will be able to work in the east,” he said.
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 10 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, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.