The new year has brought with it much talk of new diplomatic “windows” opening for talks between Europe and the Kremlin, thanks in large part to the sudden economic chaos Russia faces due to the plummeting price of oil and value of the rouble.
Such talk has come from a number of capitals, including Riga, home to the EU’s new Latvian presidency, and Brussels, in the form of foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. But critics point out that nothing has changed on the ground. Fighting continues, including a an attack on a Ukrainian bus this week which left 12 dead, and Moscow has made no progress in implementing the so-called Minsk agreement, the blueprint all EU leaders have cited as a pre-requisite to ratcheting down its sanctions regime against Russia.
Indeed, according to EU officials recent hopes of Russian acquiescence ahead of a proposed summit in the Kazakh capital of Astana have largely been dashed during diplomatic discussions with Germany and France because of refusals by the Kremlin to budge.
Still, the issue will gradually rise up the agenda in Brussels as the sanctions agreed last year begin to expire – the first in March, but incrementally towards the big economic measures which run out in June and July. It will take a unanimous decision of all 28 EU countries to renew the sanctions.
Despite the lack of progress with Russia, Mogherini this week circulated an “issues paper on relations with Russia” ahead of Monday’s meeting of foreign ministers that proposes a series of re-engagements with Moscow. Our friends and rivals at the Wall Street Journal were the first to report about it, but we’ve posted a copy of the paper here.
Although the document is characterised only as “food-for-thought” and insists there is no returning to “business as usual”, it contemplates reopening talks with the Kremlin on a wide array of issues – even if Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, does not live up to the Minsk principles. The key question raised by the paper is this one:
Should the EU consider resuming political dialogues, with a view to ensuring a more cooperative attitude by Russia in tackling major regional challenges and to promoting the EU’s interests including human rights?
According to EU officials involved in discussions over the document, the original version from Mogherini’s office was even more encouraging of engagement with Russia before Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who heads the European Council, got his hands on it and asked it to be toughened up before it was circulated to national capitals.
It comes as many in Brussels see a gradual shift of the EU centre of gravity towards the softer camp, particularly in France, which in the past as been close to Germany in the middle of the Russia debate but has, in the view of many diplomats, gradually moved towards Italy in the less-confrontational faction.
Ukrainian officials have been spooked by recent remarks by François Hollande, the French president, signalling a willingness to lift sanctions and remain sceptical about Mogherini, who was a target of Kiev’s ire as Italian foreign minister when she reached out to Putin during a trip to Moscow.
Still, diplomats say Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who is the most important voice in the debate, remains steadfast against any rapprochement with Putin. If past is prologue, it is still likely to be Merkel who could carry the day.
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