Thursday, June 24, 2021

EU says Russia is aiming to ‘de facto integrate’ eastern Ukraine

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The European Union says Russia is trying to gradually absorb parts of eastern Ukraine, according to a document the bloc shared this week with member states.

In the paper, seen by Bloomberg, the EU says steps by the Kremlin such as organizing illegitimate elections and issuing passports to locals are “aimed at de facto integration of Ukraine’s non-governmental-controlled areas into Russia.” The EU’s foreign-affairs arm, the EEAS, will prepare a report on the matter, according to the paper.

Russia has repeatedly denied plans to take over the territories, saying it’s committed to a now-stalled 2015 peace deal under which they’d receive substantial autonomy within Ukraine.

War broke out in the breakaway regions after President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea from his neighbor in 2014. While major fighting between Ukraine’s army and Kremlin-backed insurgents ended the following year, fatal skirmishes continue today, adding to the more than 13,000 deaths already recorded.

Greater autonomy for the region, known as Donbas, would potentially give it veto power over national goals such as NATO and EU membership that are opposed by Putin but backed by a majority of the county’s 42 million population.

Tensions between the former Soviet allies spiked last month as Russia deployed military hardware and more than 100,000 troops to the border area before partially pulling back following calls by Western leaders to de-escalate. In a show of support, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv last week.

The EU document presents options the bloc could take to strengthen Ukraine’s resilience to Russian aggression, including:

  • Stepping up support in tackling “hybrid threats including countering cyber threats and disinformation”
  • Helping Ukraine’s coronavirus-vaccination program, “especially of vulnerable groups in order to avoid further weakening of the country through a prolonged health and socio-economic crisis”
  • Bolstering energy security to lower dependence on Russia
  • Improving efforts to deny recognition of Russian passports issued to residents of Crimea and parts of Donbas
  • Considering allowing Ukraine to participate in some EU security projects

The EU has faced criticism for not going as far as the U.S. in sanctioning Russia. Further penalties would depend on a “further grave deterioration of the situation with regard to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” according to the document.

Ukraine has also sought backing from Brussels for its bid to join NATO.

EU ambassadors of the bloc’s political and security committee had diverging views on the paper when they discussed it Tuesday, according to a separate memo seen by Bloomberg.

One group broadly supported the timing and contents of the options. Another said the proposals didn’t sufficiently emphasize the reforms Ukraine must implement itself — such as anti-corruption measures — and that member states should talk more before exploring cooperation involving the bloc’s security programs.

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