BRUSSELS: EU leaders agreed Thursday (Mar 19) to effectively extend economic sanctions against Russia until the end of 2015, tying them to full implementation of the Minsk ceasefire accords in Ukraine.
The sanctions were imposed after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in July 2014, and were due to expire after a year.
“The duration of economic sanctions will be clearly linked to complete implementation of Minsk, bearing in mind that this is only foreseen by the end of 2015,” EU president Donald Tusk said after a summit in Brussels.
A formal decision to roll over the sanctions must still be made by all 28 leaders, most likely at the next EU summit in June.
“The necessary decisions will be taken in coming months,” added the leaders’ formal statement on Ukraine, without giving further details.
The EU leaders also agreed to ask diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini to start work on a strategy to counter Russian “disinformation”, including the setting up of a special media team.
A shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine remains in place based on the February Minsk accord brokered by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Ukraine and Russia.
Merkel has previously stressed the need for the implementation of key parts of the Minsk deal – including restoring Ukrainian control of its Russian border in parts of rebel-held Ukraine.
The mention of the end of 2015 in former Polish premier Tusk’s comments, and in the strongly-worded leaders’ statement, came after pressure from hawks in the EU who wanted a firm statement of intent on sanctions, source said.
EU officials had said in the run-up to the summit that there was no unanimity yet on formally extending the sanctions past July, with some member states wanting to give Russia more time.
Tusk indicated that sanctions could be eased if Russia lives up to its commitments to end support for the pro-Moscow rebels.
“The European Union still stands ready to support the ceasefire process and to respond positively to progress made,” he said.
But he also held out the prospect of further sanctions if the conditions of Minsk are not met, saying that the EU “stands ready to take further decisions if necessary.”
Europe has been divided from the start of the crisis over the Russian sanctions, with many member states fearing the effect on trade but also on political relations with an increasingly assertive Moscow.
Before the shooting down of MH17, many member states such as Germany and Italy had been reluctant to go further for fear of damaging major economic and political ties with Russia.
Others such as Britain and east European states once ruled from Moscow – including Tusk’s homeland Poland – argued for a much harder line, especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea almost exactly a year ago.
The EU leaders’ statement also reiterated that the bloc would not recognise the annexation of Crimea.
Russia rejects EU charges it supports the rebels with arms and technical assistance, and insists it has no role in the conflict which cost more than 6,000 lives up to the February 12 ceasefire accord.
But a perception in Brussels that Moscow is winning the propaganda war inspired the EU leaders to call for the creation of a media team “to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”.