EU ministers threaten Russia with harsher sanctions

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt [L], EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton [R]

EU foreign ministers threatened Russia yesterday (22 July) with harsher sanctions over Ukraine that could inflict wider damage on its economy following the downing of a Malaysian airliner, but delayed action for a few days.

Efforts to forge a united front were hampered by a French announcement that the planned delivery of a warship to Moscow would go ahead despite US and British pleas to halt it.

>> Read: Hollande: Delivery of second Mistral warship depends on Russia’s ‘attitude’

Meeting in Brussels, for the first time, ministers raised the possibility of restricting Russian access to European capital markets, defence and energy technology, asking the European Commission to draft proposals this week. [Read Council Conclusions]

Ministers also said that “further consideration” would be given to the possible designation of the pro-Russia separatist groups in Ukraine as terrorist organisations.

Such sanctions would require the approval of all EU governments and would apply only if Moscow does not cooperate with an international investigation into the Malaysia Airlines plane crash in an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists, and if it fails to stop weapons flowing into the country.

“I am happy that we have taken a decision which is I think quite forceful and that we have reached this decision unanimously,” Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told reporters after the meeting.

Timmermans opened the meeting after a minute’s silence was held in memory of the 298 people – 193 of them Dutch – who died when flight MH17 crashed last Thursday en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The ministers agreed to widen the list of individuals and entities targeted by asset freezes and visa bans, and opened up the possibility of imposing sanctions on people who give financial support to Russian decision-makers.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said London wanted the measures to target friends and allies of Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin to pressure Russia to stop meddling in Ukraine.

“The word is ‘cronies’: the cronies of Mr Putin and his clique in the Kremlin are the people who have to bear the pressure,” he said. “If the financial interests of the group around the leadership are affected, the leadership will know about it.”

Yesterday’s meeting took place as the United States piled pressure on Europe, which is wary of antagonising a vital energy supplier, to move fast against Russia.

US intelligence speaks out

The US government believes that pro-Russian separatists most likely shot down the Malaysian airliner “by mistake,” not realizing it was a civilian passenger flight, US intelligence officials said yesterday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the “most plausible explanation” for the destruction of the plane was that the separatists fired a Russian-made SA-11 missile at it after mistaking it for another kind of aircraft.

“Five days into it [following the crash] it does appear to be a mistake,” one of the officials said in a briefing for reporters.

The officials said that their assessments were backed up by evidence from social media and by intercepted conversations of known pro-Russian separatists, whose voice prints had been verified by US agencies. EURACTIV has reported about those intercepted conversations on 18 August, one day after the jet was brought down.

>> Read: Downed Malaysian plane: ‘War has gone beyond Ukraine’

The intelligence officials said that for several weeks, the United States had been tracking the movement by Russia of large amounts of weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and multiple-launch rocket systems, across the border.

The officials also said that rebels were being trained at a large military base near the city of Rostov, in southwestern Russia.

EU envoys will discuss the wider target list for existing sanctions on tomorrow.

Some diplomats said EU leaders may hold a special summit to take a final decision on wider economic measures. One said a meeting was “highly likely” next week.

The next scheduled summit is due on 30 August, but Polish Foreign Minister Rados?aw Sikorski said the decision could also be taken by ministers or by an exchange of letters.

Arms embargo

Several ministers called for an arms embargo on Russia to try to stem a flow of weapons that is fuelling the conflict, including surface-to-air missiles suspected of bringing down the airliner. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said any such ban would only apply to future contracts.

Differences between Paris and London burst into the open on Monday when President François Hollande said delivery of a first French helicopter carrier built for Russia would go ahead, hours after Prime Minister David Cameron had said such a delivery would be “unthinkable” in Britain.

Hollande said the handover of a second Mistral-class warship under a €1.2 billion contract signed in 2011 by his predecessor would depend on Russia’s attitude.

Hollande won support among both his own Socialists and the conservative opposition UMP for standing up to outside pressure. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius hit back at Britain yesterday, saying that Cameron should do something about UK-based Russian oligarchs before questioning France’s plan to sell Mistral helicopter carriers to Moscow.

“The English in particular were very pleasant so to speak saying we would never do that, but I told my dear British friends let’s talk about the financial sector,” Laurent Fabius told TF1 television.

Cameron’s spokesman said Britain was ready to consider sanctions that would affect its own interests, notably in financial services. When asked about the comment that it was time to target “cronies and oligarchs” around Putin, the spokesman said he had seen little evidence that London-based Russian tycoons were involved in supporting the Ukraine rebels.

Sikorski said the possible financial sanctions against Russia could include barring Moscow’s access to debt refinancing in the European public and private sectors. “Theoretically [this] can be decided already on Thursday,” he told reporters.

Lithuanian President slams France

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait?, an outspoken critic of Putin, compared the French attitude with the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“If European states keep on acting so indecisively, this is a direct invitation for the aggressor to be more aggressive and go further,” she told LRT public radio. “In (the) 1930s, Nazism wasn’t stopped, and now aggressive Russian chauvinism isn’t stopped and that resulted in the attack against a civilian plane.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin urged Europe to move faster. “We need not just tough talking, but we also need bold action by the European Union,” he told reporters in Brussels. “I believe that in these circumstance arms and weapon supplies to Russia is also against the EU code of conduct.”

In a step apparently designed to embarrass Russia, Britain’s interior ministry announced a decision to hold a public inquiry into the death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in London in 2006.

Litvinenko blamed Putin on his deathbed for ordering his killing. Moscow denied any involvement. Britain had rejected a request for an inquest last year when relations with Russia were warmer. 

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a transcript of a briefing by the Minister of Defence held on 21 July over the crash of MH17.

According to the document, Russia says the airliner has deviated from the air corridor to the north by 14 kilometres, then tried to turn back to the corridor, before it disappeared from radars.

“Why did the aircraft cross the border of the air-corridor? Was it the navigation mistake, or the aircrew followed the Dnepropetrovsk ground control orders? We will find the answers after “black boxes” and communication decoding. According to our information on the day of the accident the Ukrainian Armed Forces deployed 3 to 4 artillery battalions of Buk-M1 missile system not far from Donetsk. The system allows hitting the targets on the distance up to 35 kilometres and on the altitude to 22 kilometres. Why did the Ukrainian Armed Forces deploy these air defence units in the Donetsk region? As we know militants don’t have aircrafts”, the transcript reads.

The document also contains satellite photos of what is presented as Buk missile systems operated by the Ukrainian army and deployed close to the separatist-held areas.

Also, Russia claims that its air control system has detected a Ukrainian Air Force aircraft, supposedly Su-25, moving upwards toward MH17. The distance between aircrafts was reportedly 3-5 kilometres.

“Su-25 can gain an altitude of 10000 meters for a short time. It is armed with air-to-air missile R-60 able to lock-on and destroy target at a distance of 12 kilometres, and destroy it definitely at a distance of 5 kilometres. What was the mission of the combat aircraft on the airway of civilian aircrafts almost at the same time and same altitude with the civilian craft? We want to have this question answered”, the paper reads. 

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.

Kyiv says Moscow has provoked the rebellion and allowed fighters and heavy weapons to cross the border with impunity. It has struggled to reassert control over the eastern frontier, recapturing border positions from rebels.

The fighting has escalated sharply in recent days after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists.

>> Read: Poroshenko orders assault on separatists

Since, Ukrainian forces pushed the rebels out of their most heavily fortified bastion, the town of Slaviansk.

  • 25 July: Ministers to present their proposals for further sanctions restricting Russian access to European capital markets, defence and energy technology;
  • 30 Aug.: EU leaders hold extraordinary summit over top jobs. Further Russia sanctions could be adopted.

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