Sidelined in Ukraine crisis, EU pushes for Moscow talks

BRUSSELS (AFP) – European leaders pushed to salvage their role as mediators in the Ukraine-Russia crisis on Wednesday (Dec 15) as the Kremlin made it clear it prefers to speak directly with Washington.

The EU summit with its Eastern Partnership – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – came on the same day as Russia issued Washington with a series of security demands.

Western capitals have raised the alarm about a Russian troop build-up around Ukraine, and the EU leaders took a stern tone, warning of sanctions with “strategic consequences” if Moscow attacks.

But Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has accused Germany of blocking weapons shipments and leaving Ukraine exposed, said he would prefer sanctions to be imposed immediately, before Russia acts.

“Some leaders are proposing a format to respond to a possible escalation after a possible escalation,” Zelensky said, after meeting France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

“To be honest, no one is particularly interested in the sanctions policy after that. Our state is interested in a powerful sanctions policy before a possible escalation,” he said.

‘Brain dead’

EU capitals are keen to show solidarity with Kiev but some worry that immediate strong actions – like blocking the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany – may provoke rather than deter Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, meanwhile, was not waiting to see if Wednesday’s talks in Brussels produce a stronger European stance – he has already set out his demands to the United States.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov presented US Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried with a list of security demands – implicit conditions for standing down the troops.

This implicitly sidelines France and Germany, the guardians of the so-called “Normandy process”, a four-way peace dialogue between Paris, Berlin, Kiev and Moscow.

Participants in the meeting expressed support for Normandy co-chair France, for the “process and progress achieved”, a European official told reporters as the talks continued.

But, privately, a minister told AFP that “Normandy is brain dead” and that Putin would only seek to deal with the United States on European security matters.

The European minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said US President Joe Biden has stepped up to open a dialogue with Putin and “we have to see what that leads to”.

And Zelensky said that he was “glad that the United States today want to play this or that role. I would like them to play one of the main, not episodic roles”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels, Belgium. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the situation proved that he had been right, despite German resistance, to call for Nord Stream 2 to be abandoned.

“Nord Stream 2 was a major mistake, because it’s already becoming, it’s already a tool of blackmail, of helping President Putin in dictating gas prices all around Europe,” he said.

Morawiecki suggested that Scholz, who succeeded Angela Merkel last week as German leader, was aware that Nord Stream could be a powerful lever to threaten Russia.

But it is not clear whether the gas line forms part of the threatened sanctions package.

“We are looking with great concern at the security situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border,” Scholz said before leaving for Brussels, in his first speech to parliament since taking office.

“Any violation of territorial integrity will have a price, a high price,” he warned.

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Brussels sees the Eastern Partnership as an opportunity to help stabilise the east and counter Russian influence. But diplomats in Brussels were expecting a frustrating encounter.

The grouping has already lost Belarus, which broke away in June after criticism from EU capitals of leader Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed 2020 re-election.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – which all have Russian troops deployed in regions on their soil – would like to join the European Union, seeing it as a guarantor of peace and prosperity.

Spheres of influence

Each step on the long accession process needs unanimous support from existing member states, and longstanding candidates in the western Balkans already face an uncertain wait.

“Some member states are pushing to accept Georgia and Ukraine into the EU, but others say that is not possible,” the minister told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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Putin wants to maintain Russian influence over the former Soviet republics now bordering Turkey and EU members – and to thwart any hope of them joining the EU or Nato.

Europeans publicly reject the idea of a Russian veto or sphere of influence, insisting eastern countries are free to choose their own strategic alignments.

But in private, several senior European diplomats and government officials admit that no one in Brussels can envisage Ukraine or Georgia joining the EU.

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