Engaging with Ukraine and Russia will be a priority for Germany during its presidency of the EU Council, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told a meeting of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) while presenting Berlin’s EU Council presidency priorities on Monday (13 July).
“We want to prepare for the time when we could again talk more intensively about strategic relations with Russia,” Maas told MEPs but warned that this would require certain preparations and explained that “a solution in Ukraine is needed to change or restore the EU’s strategic relations with Russia.”
According to the German foreign minister, there is only “minimal consensus” within the EU on a common policy vis-à-vis Russia, which includes the regular extension of sanctions, but there would be “need for more efforts” to find a common EU stance towards Moscow as some EU lawmakers pointed out the geographical discrepancies within the bloc on how the Russian threat is assessed.
In late June, the Council decided to roll over the sanctions against Russia targeting specific economic sectors for a further six months, until 31 January 2021.
The decision came after the latest assessment of the state of implementation of the Minsk agreements, which lay out the conditions necessary for a ceasefire and the peaceful reintegration of occupied Donbas into Ukraine.
Germany has stepped up its calls for punitive measures against Russia in June, after Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted at the possibility of her government imposing sanctions on Moscow in connection with a 2015 cyberattack on the German Bundestag and the recent murder of a Georgian citizen on German soil.
Maas’ comments came only a few days after Berlin officially called for the use of a new EU sanctions framework to target Russian individuals following the 2015 hack attack against the German parliament’s IT system, German press agency DPA reported Sunday (12 July).
During the meeting in the European Parliament, Maas acknowledged that negotiations in the so-called “Normandy Format”, comprising representatives of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, on the implementation of the Minsk agreements have been stalling in recent months.
The last face-to-face summit of the format held in Paris in December produced some commitments, such as prisoner exchange, withdrawal of troops and a renewed commitment to implement an existing ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region (Donetsk and Lugansk), as well as enhanced powers for international ceasefire monitors.
The Normandy summit also upheld the so-called ‘Steinmeier formula’ for Eastern Ukraine, named after its author, former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for elections to be held in the separatist-held territories under Ukrainian legislation and the supervision of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
According to the formula, if OSCE judges were to declare the vote free and fair, a special self-governing status for the territories would be initiated and Ukraine would be returned control of its easternmost border.
“Negotiations are not easy, progress is limited, but a decision in eastern Ukraine will be a prerequisite for the EU to be able to talk about Russia at all,” Maas said in Brussels, adding that there had not been much progress in reaching a complete ceasefire.
OSCE Secretary-General Thomas Greminger told EURACTIV in an interview earlier this year that despite some rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia, the full implementation of the Minsk agreements is still “miles away” and there is still a risk that the separatist regions could turn into another “frozen conflict”.
Russian-backed troops in the breakaway Donbas region have since March regularly denied access to the OSCE mission monitoring the conflict, while United Nations agencies, NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had also reportedly face difficulties in accessing the areas outside government control.
Kyiv hopes to hold another round of Normandy talks as soon as possible. According to Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, such a summit could take place in Berlin as early as August.
However, the French ambassador to Ukraine, Etienne de Poncins, toned down expectations of holding another summit without having evidence of tangible progress on the steps discussed during the last Normandy summit, Ukrinform news agency reported.
“Our common goal is not to hold a summit for the sake of holding it,” the agency quoted de Poncins as telling a press conference.
“In our opinion, an important task now is to implement the conclusions adopted at the December summit of the Normandy format in Paris. We can consider organising the next meeting in this format only under this condition,” he said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]