German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, heading to Moscow for talks about trade with President Vladimir Putin, said on Wednesday (21 September) that he favoured a lifting of EU sanctions on Russia but that would require making progress on peace in Ukraine.
The European Union imposed the sanctions after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. Soon afterwards, conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine between government forces and separatists who the West says are backed by Moscow, but a fragile ceasefire is in force under the so-called Minsk agreement which Germany helped to broker.
“I am doing what I can so that the sanctions, imposed after the annexation of Crimea, can be lifted step-by-step, and in the same measure as there is tangible progress in implementing the Minsk agreement,” Gabriel said.
“If that succeeds, we can start to ease relations that would help both sides,” he said, adding that German-Russian economic ties had great potential. Trade between the two countries fell by 13.7% in the first half of this year.
Gabriel’s Social Democrats are junior partners to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in Germany’s coalition government, with an election due a year from now. He has taken a more conciliatory stance towards Moscow than Merkel, who says Russia must do more to help the shaky Ukraine peace process.
Russia has retaliated against the sanctions by banning food imports from a range of Western countries including the EU.
“My trip to Russia takes place when we have a very tense situation with no quick or easy results expected,” said Gabriel, who is taking a business delegation with him to Moscow. “But for that very reason, isolation and confrontation offer no prospects and are not a sensible policy.”
The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine gave their support to a deal to end fighting in eastern Ukraine, following 17-hour long negotiations in the Belarussian capital Minsk on 12 February.
The four leaders committed to respecting Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, according to a joint declaration.
Western leaders are closely observing the implementation of the Minsk agreement.
On 2 March, European leaders said that they agreed that the OSCE needed a broader role as observers of the ceasefire, and weapons removal.
Ukraine has asked the EU to dispatch an EU-led Security and Defence (CSDP) mission to Donbas.