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03/12/2016

Crimea standoff moves to ‘military stage’ as EU leaders gather

Global Europe

Crimea standoff moves to ‘military stage’ as EU leaders gather

EU summit.jpg

A Ukrainian soldier was killed yesterday (18 March) by Russian troops in Crimea in what appears to augur more violence on Friday, when a truce between the Ukrainian military and Russian occupying forces will expire. 

Tensions surrounding Ukraine are more than likely to overtake the agenda of the two-day Spring EU summit beginning tomorrow, which was initially intended to discuss industry competitiveness and energy.

EurActiv obtained the draft conclusions of the summit, which make no mention of Ukraine. Judging from the experience of the 6 March extraordinary summit on Ukraine, the texts regarding this largest geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War are treated as highly confidential documents until they are published.

According to rumours that were denied late yesterday, Council President Herman Van Rompuy was due to pay a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow today. But a Council spokesperson said that van Rompuy would stay in Brussels to prepare for the summit.

After Crimeans voted to join Russia in a weekend referendum dismissed by the EU and United States as a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, Putin signed a treaty with Russian-backed Crimean leaders on Tuesday to bring the region into Russia.

"The European Union does not and will not recognize the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation," Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

They said the European Council would discuss Ukraine at its meeting this week and "agree on a united European response."

But another issue could complicate the discussion further. On Friday, a truce agreed by the defence ministers of Ukraine and Russia on the military facilities of Ukraine on the Crimea peninsula will expire. Russia has said that until then, Ukrainian forces need to decide whether they would join the Russian army or surrender.

Yesterday, a Ukrainian serviceman was killed when a base still held by Kiev came under attack in the main town of Simferopol, the first death in Crimea from a military clash since Russia seized control three weeks ago.

Kyiv said the attackers had been wearing Russian military uniforms, and it responded by authorising its soldiers in Crimea to use weapons to protect their lives, reversing previous orders that they should avoid using their arms in self-defence.

Ukraine's pro-Western prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, denounced the killing of the serviceman as a "war crime" and called for international talks to prevent an escalation of the conflict. He also said that the Crimea standoff had moved “from the political stage to the military stage”.

Interfax Ukraine news agency, quoting Crimean police, reported that a member of the pro-Russian "self-defence forces" was also killed in the incident, but that could not immediately be confirmed.

In Kyiv, the press service of acting President Oleksander Turchinov announced new military orders. "In connection with the death of a Ukrainian serviceman … Ukrainian troops in Crimea have been allowed to use weapons to defend and protect the lives of Ukrainian servicemen," the Defence Ministry order said.

Turchinov also accused Russia of annexing Crimea in actions reminiscent of Nazi Germany's takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland in the run-up to World War Two.

Fiercely patriotic speech

In a fiercely patriotic speech to a joint session of parliament in the Kremlin, punctuated by standing ovations, Putin said Crimea's disputed referendum had shown the overwhelming will of the people to be reunited with Russia.

As the Russian national anthem played, Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty to make Ukraine's region part of the Russian Federation, declaring: "In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia." Parliament is expected to begin ratifying the treaty within days.

Putin later told a flag-waving rally in Red Square beneath the Kremlin walls that Crimea had returned to "home port."

USA to announce more sanctions

The White House yesterday condemned Putin's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and said it was preparing a fresh round of sanctions against Russia.

"More is coming," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, a day after the United States slapped sanctions on 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials, penalties that some critics said did not go far enough to get Moscow's attention.

As the United States and European allies seek coordinated responses to pressure Russia, President Barack Obama and the leaders of the other Group of Seven economies scheduled a meeting in The Hague next week to discuss Ukraine on the fringes of an already scheduled nuclear security summit.

The White House said in a statement that the G7 meeting would focus on further steps that the group may take to respond to developments and to support Ukraine.

Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone about Ukraine. A White House statement said both leaders agreed to stress to Putin that a diplomatic path remains for resolving the crisis.

They agreed it was vital to send international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United Nations to southern and eastern Ukraine immediately, the White House said. Ukraine's prime minister has expressed fears Russia might now seek to move into eastern Ukraine.

More sanctions from EU?

Asked by EurActiv if more sanctions are to be expected following annexation of Crimea by Russia, Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson to the EU’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, said that this was an issue for EU leaders to decide at the summit.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose visa restrictions and asset freezes on 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials for their roles in the events leading to the 16 March referendum in Crimea [see list on page 12-13 of the EU Official Journal].

But Russia sent the message that it was not at all impressed by the Western sanctions. The Russian parliament issued a statement saying that all 373 Russian MPs who had ratified Crimea annexation wanted to be in the sanctions list.

It appears at least that some officials do fear the sanctions. Igor Sechin, the head of state oil major Rosneft said at an event in Tokyo that more sanctions could be “unproductive”.

"Looking into expanding sanctions is something that will only make the conflict worse," said Sechin, a long-standing ally of Putin, as quoted by Reuters.

Together with Alexei Miller, the CEO of Russia’s gas export monopoly Gazprom, appeared in an initial EU list of sanctions, but were later deleted. As an EU minister explained, the list agreed on Monday was “the only possible compromise” at that time, with some member countries proposing longer lists and others, shorter.

Positions

  • 20-21 March: EU leaders hold regular Spring Summit in Brussels, Ukraineto sign political chapters of EU Association Agreement;
  • 21 March: Truce agreed by Ukrainian and Russian defence ministers on Ukraine forces in Crimea expires;
  • 24-25 March: Nuclear security summit in the Hague. G7 leaders to meet in the fringes of the summit. 

Background

At an extraordinary summit on 6 March, EU leaders denounced Russia’s “aggression” in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and threatened Moscow with sanctions if it did not take steps to “de-escalate” the crisis.

>> Read: EU gives ultimatum to Russia over its ‘aggression’ against Ukraine

EU Leaders strongly condemned Russia's “unprovoked violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity", and called on Russia to immediately withdraw its armed forces and allow immediate access for international monitors.

Failing to do so, EU leaders threatened Moscow with sanctions, including travel bans and assets freeze, which could potentially hit Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Further Reading

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