In surprise move, Borrell says will visit Ukraine’s disputed region of Donbas

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Hondarchuk and EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell in Brussels on 28 January 2020. [Council newsroom]

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said on Tuesday (28 January) he intends to visit Ukraine in the coming weeks, including the disputed region of Donbas which is under the control of pro-Russia separatists.

Borrell made the announcement at a press conference in Brussels with Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk which came at the conclusion of a meeting of the EU-Ukraine Association Council.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine that broke out in 2014 has killed more than 13,000 people, left a large swathe of Ukraine de facto controlled by Moscow-backed separatists and aggravated the deepest east-west rift since the Cold War.

Asked about a possible bigger personal involvement in solving the crisis in Donbas, Borrell said he planned to visit the region in order to get a first-hand impression of the situation on the ground.

“I intend to visit Ukraine in the coming weeks,” Borrell said, adding that Ukraine is a key partner for the EU, not just a close neighbour.

“I would like to visit a more relevant part of the country in terms of external relations. I would like to visit Donbas, the border, where, as I know, there is a certain amount of military activity, in order to perceive by myself how the situation is there. We must make every effort to stop people being killed,” Borrell said.

Borrell’s declaration about a potential visit to Donbas may have surprised a few European diplomats. So far, conflict resolution in the disputed region has been handled under the so-called Normandy format, involving France and Germany on the EU side.

Moreover, it is unclear whether the security situation on the ground would allow such a stunt or whether pro-Russia separatists will even allow Borrell to set foot in the disputed territory.

Normandy summit upholds 'Steinmeier formula' for Eastern Ukraine

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in their first face-to-face meeting, took part in nine hours of talks in Paris on Monday (9 November), brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Despite his surprising declaration, Borrell fully backed the Normandy format.

“The result of the last meeting in Paris must be implemented on the ground,” the Spanish diplomat said with reference to the last summit of the Normandy format held in Paris on 9 November.

He added that in this respect, efforts were needed on several lines: humanitarian assistance, de-mining and major infrastructure feasibility studies to prepare future reconstruction.

“A safe Ukraine is a big investment for our future,” Borrell said.

Asked about the Kerch strait, which Russia considers as its internal sea, Borrell said the EU continued to call on Russia to ensure unhindered and free passage to and from the Sea of Azov. He reminded that the EU recently took a number of measures, including the opening of an office in Mariupol.

Ukraine seeks EU help to prevent Russia from ‘suffocating’ its Azov Sea shore

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told Brussels journalists on Monday (18 February) his country was asking the EU and the European Investment Bank (EIB) to engage in efforts to avoid the “suffocation” of a strategic territory coveted by Russia.

Regarding the EU-Ukraine Association agreement, Borrell called it “the most comprehensive the EU has with any country”.

Indeed, the 1,000-page document has sometimes been mentioned as a blueprint for a post-Brexit deal between the Union and the UK.

Borrell also mentioned rule of law, and the fight against fraud, including measures to investigate “private bank fraud”.

A $5.6 billion hole was left in the finances of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest bank, due to lending practices under the ownership of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.

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Ukraine is finalising changes to legislation on bank insolvency in consultation with the International Monetary Fund as part of efforts by Kyiv to secure a new loan programme, a senior state official told Reuters.

The IMF has sought reassurance that Ukraine will make a serious effort to claw back money from banks which have been rescued in bailouts or whose depositors have had to be compensated, a top central bank official said last week.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk thanked the EU for its “systemic support” in favour of his country. “Our priority today is peace on our land,” he said, adding that a “big team of young decent professionals” were now in charge of “ambitious reform agenda based on European values, aimed at European integration”.

Honcharuk also said all the conditions for releasing the next $500 million tranche of IMF aid had been met. “The only think we are waiting for is the completion of negotiations with IMF,” he added.

The joint statement after the Association Council noted the importance of bringing to justice those responsible for the large-scale fraud at PrivatBank, and the recovery of assets.

It also says the sides agreed on the need to swiftly and thoroughly investigate attacks against civil society activists and journalists. Recently a law regulating media activity in Ukraine caused uproar.

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President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has ordered officials to swiftly draft a bill regulating media activity in Ukraine, in an effort to increase media accountability and prohibit Russian ownership and financing of news outlets.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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