EU throws its weight behind Ukraine peace plan

Catherine Ashton and Carld Bildt at Luxembourg ministerial

Catherine Ashton and Carld Bildt. Luxembourg, 23 May. [European Commission]

The EU urged Russia Monday (23 June) to back President Petro Poroshenko’s peace plan for Ukraine. But its threat of tougher sanctions, if Moscow failed to do so, appeared to only have partial support.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg held out the 15-point plan put forward by the new Ukrainian president as an opportunity to defuse the crisis that has led to hundreds of deaths and caused a confrontation between Russia and the West. The ministers held talks with the new Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

They called on Russia to “support the peace plan and to adopt effective measures to stop the continued flow of illegal fighters, arms and equipment over the border into Ukraine”.

Ministers approved the concept for a mission under the EU’s CSDP to assist Ukraine in the reform of the civilian security sector, police and the rule of law. The objective is to deploy the mission in the summers, following a similar concept to the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX).

They also decided that goods originating from Russian-occupied Crimea or Sevastopol are prohibited on EU territory, with the exception of those having been granted a certificate of origin by the Ukrainian authorities.

The ministers’ statement noted the EU has been drawing up further sanctions that could be imposed on Russia if events in eastern Ukraine required it.

But ministers’ comments again showed divisions among the EU’s 28 member states about pushing ahead with tougher economic sanctions against Russia, which they have been threatening since March.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said EU leaders would weigh Russia’s actions at a summit on 26-27 June, and warned Russia that the EU was ready to impose new sanctions if it was not satisfied with Moscow’s response to Kyiv’s peace plan.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin should be in no doubt that in the EU, we are ready to take those measures,” he said.

But Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said that whether EU leaders adopted more sanctions against Russia on Friday depended on developments between now and then.

“I think the need is to stimulate all parties to negotiate and try and avoid the need to escalate the sanctions. I hope that we can avoid that step,” he said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will travel to Kyiv to meet Poroshenko today (24 June), said he told other EU ministers that it was clear that if nothing moved in the right direction, the question of sanctions “immediately will be in front of our door again”.

“But I’ve pleaded that we should concentrate on getting some elements of Poroshenko’s peace plan to work at a time when Poroshenko showed courage with this plan,” he said.

EU divisions

The United States has already threatened sanctions on Russia’s financial, defence and high-tech industries as more Russian military equipment has flowed into Ukraine, and has intensified talks with Europe over imposing similar measures.

But many of the EU’s member states are wary of antagonising their major energy supplier and concerned about Russian retaliation if they imposed tough trade sanctions on Russia.

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.

Britain, France, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have pushed for tougher sanctions on Russia while Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Malta have been among the most reluctant EU states.

Ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine

Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have agreed to observe a ceasefire with Ukrainian forces until 27 June, one of them, Alexander Boroday, said yesterday.

The truce is to run parallel to a unilateral Ukrainian military ceasefire declared by Poroshenko on Friday as part of a peace plan to end the insurgency by pro-Russian separatists in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The separatists’ announcement, after talks which also involved a senior Russian diplomat and a former Ukrainian president, came after a day of high level diplomacy, in which the West urged Russia to use its influence to defuse the conflict in Ukraine’s rebellious east.

Speaking after meeting a “contact group” which included a representative of the OSCE security watchdog, Boroday said: “The consultation ended with authorities of the Luhansk and Donetsk Republics agreeing to maintain a ceasefire for their part […] until the 27th.”

An unusual lack of armed incidents throughout Monday, making it the first non-violent day in the east for weeks, appeared to indicate that the rebels had begun to observe the truce.

Volodymyr Chepovy, an official of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, said that from 9 AM to 5 PM, no incidents of weapons use were recorded. “There were no attempts to seize administrative buildings or military points etc.”

Ukrainian ex-president Leonid Kuchma, who took part in the talks, said the agreement on a two-way ceasefire until 10 AM on 27 June meant “one of the key problems has been resolved.”

The declaration of a rebel ceasefire after talks involving a Russian representative seemed certain to be welcomed by the West as a sign Moscow could be ready now to help engineer a settlement in Ukraine’s troubled east.

Andriy Parubiy, head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, said the participants at Monday’s talks had also agreed there should be cooperation to free hostages.

Russian denial

Russia has denied Kyiv’s charges that it has helped foment the separatist unrest and knowingly allowed military equipment to cross into Ukraine, or built up forces along the 1,900 KM (1,190 mile) joint border.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin gave qualified support last weekend for Poroshenko’s peace plan, he urged Kyiv to hold a dialogue with the “opposing side” and find a compromise.

Shortly after the rebel ceasefire was announced, the Kremlin said Putin had addressed Ukraine with US President Barack Obama in a telephone conversation on Monday.

“They discussed […] the implementation of the peace plan proposed by President Petro Poroshenko. Putin stressed that priority must be given to halting military operations and to the start of direct negotiations,” the Kremlin said.

The White House gave a somewhat different reading of the phone call.

“The president spoke to President Putin and once again urged him to support peace instead of allowing the provision of arms and materiel across the border and continuing support for militants and separatists who are further destabilizing the situation in Ukraine,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

“Russia will face additional costs if we do not see concrete actions to de-escalate the situation,” he said of Obama’s message to Putin.

Separately, a NATO official said alliance foreign ministers meeting in Brussels later this week would discuss a proposal to set up a “trust fund” to help strengthen Ukraine’s armed forces in the areas of logistics, command and control, communications and cyber defence.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the EU was ready to raise to a political level the consultations with Russia regarding the Association agreements (AA) the Union is planning to sign with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia on 27 June. The AAs are coupled with so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free trade Agreements.

The Russian made proposals for such consultations to be held at the last EU-Russia summit on 28 January. So far two rounds of consultations have taken place at a technical level. “Political level” implies that Russia would be represented at the level of minister, and the EU at commissioner level.

The new Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin tweeted from Luxembourg, where he attended the EU ministerial, that “the day will come when the foreign minister of Ukraine will be represented as a member country”.

Klimkin, who is on his first EU mission since he replaced former foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia on 22 June, refused to answer questions in Russian, the website Ukrainian Pravda reports. Russian journalists asked him questions in Russian on three occasions, but he provided answers in Ukrainian.

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. 

Scores of people have been killed and wounded in Ukraine since the rebellions in the two eastern regions. The dead include about 150 Ukrainian servicemen - among them 49 who died when a cargo plane was brought down by rebel fire - and scores of rebels and ordinary citizens. It has been the worst bloodshed in Ukraine since it became independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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

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