EurActiv.com

EU news and policy debates across languages

04/12/2016

Putin revokes ‘right of intervention’ in Ukraine

Europe's East

Putin revokes ‘right of intervention’ in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin. Vienna, 24 June.

President Vladimir Putin asked Russia’s upper house yesterday (24 June) to revoke the right it had granted him to order a military intervention in Ukraine in defence of Russian-speakers there.

Minutes before he spoke, Kyiv said pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine had shot down a military helicopter, most likely killing all nine on board. It was the most serious breach of a temporary ceasefire agreed to in talks between government and rebels less than 24 hours earlier.

Putin’s move received a cautious welcome in the West, as a sign Moscow was ready to help engineer a settlement in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east, where a pro-Russian uprising against Kyiv began in April.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it a “first practical step” following Putin’s statement of support last weekend for Poroshenko’s peace plan for eastern Ukraine.

But later he told security chiefs to “open fire without hesitation” if government forces came under attack, and “did not rule out bringing the ceasefire regime to an early end” if rebels continued to breach it, his press service said.

Putin himself said he now expected Ukraine to begin talks on guaranteeing the rights of its Russian-speaking minority, which Russia would continue to defend.

“It is not enough to announce a ceasefire,” he told reporters on a visit to Vienna. “A substantive discussion of the essence of the problems is essential.”

In the 1 March resolution, the Federation Council had granted Putin the right to “use the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country normalises”.

That resolution, together with Russia’s March annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, helped push East-West relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War and led the United States and Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow.

The Federation Council was due to discuss the reversal requested by Putin today (25 June) and expected to approve it.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said: “We expect Russia to withdraw its troops and military infrastructure from the Ukrainian border, end its support for armed separatist groups, and the flow of weapons and mercenaries across its border, as well as denounce publicly separatist violence in Ukraine.”

EU sanctions

A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton declined to comment when asked whether Putin’s step would reduce the likelihood of tougher sanctions being agreed at an EU summit in Brussels on 26-27 June.

The White House welcomed Putin’s backing for the ceasefire, but said there must be “tangible actions” to defuse the crisis.

President Barack Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron and agreed that the United States and the European Union would “work to implement additional coordinated measures to impose costs on Russia” if it failed to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, the White House said.

US Vice President Joe Biden also spoke with Poroshenko and “underscored the importance of having monitors in place to verify violations of the ceasefire, as well as the need to stop the supply of weapons and militants from across the border,” the White House said.

Even the limited sanctions already imposed by Washington and the EU have chilled investor sentiment in Russia at a time when its economy is already on the brink of recession.

There was no word on the progress of peace talks, at which Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are represented alongside rebel leaders and Kyiv’s representative, former president Leonid Kuchma.

But it was clear that the ceasefire, due to expire on Friday morning, was under heavy strain.

The Ukrainian helicopter downed near the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk was carrying technicians who were installing equipment to monitor violations of the peace plan, the government said.

Igor Strelkov, the top rebel commander in Slaviansk, was quoted on a rebel Facebook page as saying: “Talks with them [the Kyiv government] are possible only from a position of strength.”

Elsewhere, a witness said rebels had opened fire on two Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers leaving Donetsk airport, which is under government control. Kyiv said three servicemen were killed in rebel attacks on military posts and checkpoints. But rebels accused government forces of firing first.

Putin himself appeared to cast doubt on a central element of Poroshenko’s plan: that rebels should lay down their weapons.

He said it was “pointless” to demand this when far-right militants who had helped to topple Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February had not been disarmed by Kyiv.

Russia itself has already pulled back tens of thousands of troops it had moved close to the border earlier in the crisis.

Those troops had also provided an unspoken threat to support the well-equipped but sometimes disunited rebels in eastern Ukraine against government forces trying to wrest back the towns and administration buildings they had seized.

But since the election of Poroshenko as President on 25 May, the rebels have been gradually losing ground in a conflict where scores have been killed on both sides.

On Friday, Poroshenko is set to sign a free trade agreement with the EU – the very pact that Yanukovich rejected in January under heavy pressure from Russia, which had wanted Ukraine’s 45 million people to join its own Eurasian Economic Union.

Russia is certain to respond by raising trade barriers to Ukrainian exports in order to protect its markets, further fraying an economic relationship already badly soured by Ukraine’s refusal to accept an increase in the price of Russian gas, imposed after Yanukovich was ousted.

Russia’s Gazprom has now cut off the gas, and its CEO Alexei Miller repeated on Tuesday in Vienna that Kyiv must settle $1.95 billion of its debt and pay up front for future supplies before the taps can be reopened. 

Positions

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who also happened to be in Vienna for a visit, expressed his disappointment over the latest plans for the pipeline. Kiev views this as a purely "political project", he said. At the same time Klimkin agreed with Putin's desire for sustained ceasefire and called on Russia to impose effective border controls as soon as possible. This is key in preventing fighters and weapons from moving into Ukraine, the foreign minister said.

The next move must be to restore the very fragile ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, Klimkin indicated, particularly regaining control over the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk?. Russia is instrumental in fulfilling this, Klimkin said, saying that he hopes the peace plan laid down by President Poroshenko will be implemented. Now it is again up to Moscow to react, he said, as it seems the fronts are changing fast. 

Background

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. 

But since the election of Petro Poroshenko as President of Ukraine on 25 May, the rebels have been gradually losing ground in a conflict where scores have been killed on both sides.

Timeline

27 June: Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to sign EU Association agreements during European Council meeting in Brussels.

Further Reading