On Monday, European Union foreign ministers discussed the bloc’s ties with Russia for the first time in more than a year, a moment some believed could pave the way to a re-think of the bloc’s approach.
In fact, Monday’s discussion seems to have barely shifted the status quo, according to people familiar with the discussions. Yes, there are some governments like Hungary that dislike the bloc’s economic sanctions on Moscow and a number, including Italy and Greece, that hope to deepen engagement substantially with Russia. However no change is likely while the situation in eastern Ukraine remains tense and the conflict between Moscow and Kiev unresolved.
After encountering resistance in Brussels for any effort to map out how the bloc could scale up political ties, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini came into Monday’s discussion promising an overview of the current state of relations.
Foreign ministers were asked to discuss five principles which should guide relations: that any change in the EU’s basic Russia policy – including on sanctions — should be tied to implementation by Russia of last year’s Minsk peace accords with Ukraine; that the EU should strengthen ties with the other former Soviet Republics that lie on its eastern border; that the EU should improve its resilience on issues like energy security; that the EU should engage selectively with Russia in areas such as foreign policy and climate change where it’s in the bloc’s interest; and that the EU should strengthen people-to-people ties and support Russian civil society.
Ms. Mogherini said Monday evening there was unanimous backing for the principles and EU officials stressed that at no point did the Russia discussion grow heated or conflictual. On the margins, the debate could pave the way for an incremental broadening of ties with Moscow on issues of common concern like migration.
However there was skirmishing over the critical question facing EU governments: whether or not to roll over economic sanctions on Russia by the end of July.
Diplomats said three arguments are being deployed by those who would like to re-examine – either by scuppering the measures or, more likely, by gradually easing them in response to modest improvements in the situation in eastern Ukraine.
One is the old argument that sanctions have not been effective in changing Russian policy in Ukraine, a view that has lost currency over the last year as Russia’s economy has faltered. A second increasingly potent argument is that the Ukrainian government’s failure to implement its commitments under Minsk should free the bloc to take a more balanced approach by curtailing its Russian “stick.” Third, that the cost of sanctions for EU countries cannot be borne indefinitely.
Hungary and Greece were among those stressing that sanctions cannot remain in place forever. Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni pushed for broader engagement with Moscow but made it clear that Rome would not break EU unity on Russia. There was discussion – and a range of views – on Ms. Mogherini’s idea that she should travel to Russia, diplomats said. She stressed if the trip was to go ahead, it would happen at an appropriate time and only if the conditions were right.
There were plenty of arguments pushing in the other direction: Several ministers raised concerns over Russia’s trial of Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who has been held since 2014 and is on hunger strike; U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it was for Russia to show whether it was at best a competitor and at worst, an adversary. Moscow’s aggressive military support for the Assad regime was also floated as a reason for caution.
EU officials hope to make the Russia sanctions decision by June if possible. That could happen when leaders meet late that month in Brussels.
There are still many factors which could weigh on that debate – continued violence in eastern Ukraine, greater political chaos in Kiev, Russia’s actions in Syria. However diplomats said that Monday’s discussion, far from unpicking the consensus behind sanctions within the bloc, had left the basic pillar of EU policy unchanged: that Russia must significantly pivot its approach in eastern Ukraine to unwind the sanctions.
“Nobody questioned the need to implement Minsk fully,” said one senior diplomat from a country which has supported the economic restrictions. “I have a feeling that we still can hold the sanctions” in June.
By Laurence Norman