After the annexation of Crimea, the EU is working to both fast-track candidate nation’s acceptance into the economic union. But the EU is also working with Russia to ease tensions. And unlike NATO, another group scrambling to discourage further Russian expansion, the EU doesn’t have any tanks. Could the European Union be the key to avoiding further escalation?
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Below we will be making sporadic updates. Unless there is major breaking news, we will continue our full Ukraine coverage on Sunday.
1350 GMT: In what RFE/RL calls “an ominous sign,” ITAR-TASS reports that the Russian Foreign Ministry is warning that many Ukrainian citizens have written letters asking Moscow for protection.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has continued to receive many letters from residents of Ukraine who asked to protect their rights and freedoms, the head of the ministry’s department of CIS countries, Viktor Sorokin, told a meeting of deputies of the party A Just Russia.
“We in the Foreign Ministry have received sacks of letters during all these months. Ordinary citizens ask to protect their basic rights to have free access to mass media and freely talk in their native language,” Sorokin said.
1346 GMT: Ukraine will implement new visa restrictions on Russian citizens, starting Monday:
Russian citizens visiting Ukraine could previously stay for a period of three months, after which they were able to “renew” their legal 90-day stay by simply crossing the Russian border and coming back, the Ukrainian border guard administration said, RIA Novosti reported.
However, from Monday, border guards will to be on the lookout to see if Russian citizens are abiding by the new restrictions.
Russia will implement the same restrictions on Ukrainians, and while the Kremlin claims that this is unrelated to the crisis because all foreigners face the same restrictions, this is a major policy change by both countries.
1343 GMT: Ukraine’s Ministry of Energy says he will fight Russia’s hike of natural gas prices by 80% in international court:
“I told you clearly: we (Kyiv and Moscow) shall try to make a deal (over the gas price). If we fail to make a deal, there is a procedure envisaged by the agreement – applying to the Stockholm arbitration,” Prodan told reporters in Kyiv on Saturday.
1339 GMT: Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk says he is the leader of a “kamikaze” government because they are simultaneously trying to fight off Russian influence, and a potential invasion, while instituting unpopular austerity measures to trim the budget and ease Ukraine into compliance with the IMF and EU deals.
Yatseniuk, 39, who stepped in as interim prime minister last month after Viktor Yanukovich and his ministers fled the “Euromaidan” protests, conceded that it would be very difficult “under the current Russian presence” to undo what he described as Russia’s “international crime” in seizing Crimea.
But he said Ukraine would never recognise the Russian takeover in exchange for re-establishing good relations.
“I want to be perfectly clear. We will never recognise the annexation of Crimea … The time will come when Ukraine will take over control of Crimea,” he said, speaking in English, seated in his cavernous, Soviet-built government headquarters beneath the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
The reality: Ukraine’s finances are in a mess, and they have been for quite some time. Former president Viktor Yanukovych effectively plundered the economy and the state budget, but he was not alone. Corruption is ingrained in Ukraine’s way of doing things. So far, the interim government and the forces like the EU and IMF that are propping up its economy believe that the only way to fix this is emergency austerity and fast reforms. But the new government is up against a culture of corruption, and it’s hard to do that while a bear is threatening to push in your back door.
1330 GMT: Foreign ministers from European Union nations are meeting for two days of informal talks in Athens to discuss emergency measures that can be taken to end further crisis in Ukraine and eastern Europe. The EU is taking three key steps:
1. Fast-tracking the process that countries have to go through in order to join the EU. The idea here is that things are moving too slowly, giving Russia time to react. The idea is also to strengthen economic and political ties, speed up the dropping of visa restrictions and the issuing of loans… the efforts will help, in theory, bolster the new members’ economies while increasing good will towards Europe. All of this will make Russia think twice about bullying these countries such as Ukraine, Estonia, and Modlova.
2. Threaten to sanction Russia if it executes further aggression. Economics is a major deterrent, though so far Europe has been hesitant to take a firm stand with Russia over the EU’s deep economic ties there — especially in the energy sector.
3. Work with Russia to try to mitigate their downside to new nations joining the EU. If Russia feels like it is losing less by not acting, and if the EU can convince Russia it will lose more than it bargains for by acting, the theory is that further expansion can be prevented.
But not all EU members are on the same page about which option to stress:
Despite talks of a unified EU front towards Russia on Ukraine, there were different emphases in approach, from the harder stance of countries such as the U.K. and Sweden, to countries such as Greece, which believe sanctions can’t be used in isolation to solve the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Greek Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who was hosting the meeting, stressed that “sanctions are not an end in themselves … the issue is de-escalation that will lead to a definitive and working solution.”
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt stressed the need for resolve on the issue of respecting international law.
“I think it is very clear that Russia has changed in the past two years,” he said. “They intend to be an Orthodox bastion against the West. They (engage in) very aggressive propaganda, sort of the muscular East versus the decadent West.”
Referring to a public rally last month in which Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke in front of a banner reading “Crimea is in my heart” Bildt said, “We have to wonder, what else is in his heart?”