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Eastern brinkmanship: Tensions with Russia overshadow summit with ex-Soviet countries

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Wednesday urged EU leaders to impose preemptive sanctions on Russia as a way of deterring any potential military attack rather than waiting to punish Moscow until after it takes hostile action.

But legally it was far from clear that the EU could grant Zelenskiy’s request, as typically sanctions must be imposed on specific individuals or entities in response to specific events, and there is a heavy burden of proof in order to make sure the measures will stand up in court.

Zelenskiy delivered his plea while visiting Brussels to attend a leaders’ summit of the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, an outreach effort toward countries that were once republics in the Soviet Union. His request came amid a large mobilization of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, and threats by the EU, U.S. and other Western countries to impose heavy economic actions on Moscow if it undertakes “military escalation.”

“Our state is interested in a strong sanctions policy towards a probable escalation,” Zelenskiy said at a news conference. “And then I think there may or may not be a probable escalation.”

In the end, the whole episode may have served only to prove that in its long and escalating fight with Russia, Kyiv finds support for the West to be insufficient to protect it from its far larger and menacing neighbor.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel reiterated the EU’s readiness to hold Russia accountable in the event of a new attack, but they did not offer a positive reaction to the Ukrainian president’s request.

Ukraine has faced a constant threat since 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, and then helped stir up an armed separatist insurrection in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia has served as the financial and military backer of the separatist war, though the Kremlin has frequently denied any formal role in the situation.

“For us, it is important to have such sanctions applied before rather than after the conflict would happen,” Zelenskiy said, adding: “We have the war going on for eight years. We understand that only if the sanctions are applied prior to the date of armed conflict, that they could become the prevention mechanisms for any possible escalation.”

‘Big concern’ for Moscow

The Eastern Partnership program is intended to showcase the EU’s relationships with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Belarus dropped out of the program as a result of souring relations with the EU, which has strongly supported pro-democracy demonstrators in their efforts against the dictator Alexander Lukashenko and his claims of victory in a widely contested presidential election in August 2020.

Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš told journalists at the summit that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely felt his authoritarian rule threatened by the Eastern Partnership initiative.

“This idea of democracy is taking a stronger hold in the Eastern Partnership — this is a big concern to the Kremlin,” Kariņš said. “Why? Because it can also spread to Russia itself.”

The EU has identified the trio of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine as being on a faster track toward close collaboration with the EU, though potential membership in the bloc is still viewed as far in the distance.

But with the threat of an invasion of Ukraine at the top of the agenda, Putin succeeded in dominating the conversation at an event aimed at drawing the five countries West toward Brussels, and away from Russian autocracy.

Even after the leaders at the summit had adopted their formal conclusions, an animated discussion continued about the security situation along the Ukrainian border, according to officials briefed on the meeting.

The new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and French President Emmanuel Macron each met individually with Zelenskiy as well as all together in a group. France and Germany are co-sponsors of talks between Ukraine and Russia in the so-called Normandy Format, which is intended to implement the Minsk 2 peace accords and end the war in Donbass.

The Normandy process has failed to deliver peace and many officials and diplomats believe it is effectively dead, with neither Ukraine nor Russia particularly interested in fulfilling their obligations under what is generally viewed as a flawed treaty.

Nonetheless, Macron and Scholz each spoke out in favor of reinvigorating the Normandy talks, echoing recent declarations by U.S. President Joe Biden, who has insisted that it is the best chance for peace.

Zelenskiy, during his news conference, said Ukraine was prepared to talk with Russia at any time, in any format, and he said he would welcome a stronger, more central role for the U.S. even though Washington has not expressed interest in formally joining the Normandy group. If expanding Normandy was infeasible, Zelenskiy suggested the possibility of a new “parallel track” of negotiations involving the U.S.

The Ukrainian leader said he did not feel any pressure from Washington about implementing the Minsk agreements, which he has said is impossible to do unless Russia first meets a raft of obligations, including the removal of weapons and foreign fighters from Donetsk and Luhansk, and the restoration of control of the border to the Ukrainian government.

Zelenskiy, who was a professional comedian and actor before being elected, joked he sensed an echo in the questions about pressure, a reference to his entanglement in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s first impeachment scandal, and charges that Trump had tried to squeeze him into investigating Biden’s son, Hunter, by withholding military aid.

“As for the pressure from the United States, I did not feel it,” he said. “When President Trump was there, I was asked then if I felt pressured. Now there’s another president, and again the same question about pressure. I did not feel pressure. If there will be — I will definitely say, because it is very dangerous to live with pressure. The pressure must be brought down.”

In comments to reporters, Kariņš and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki each voiced opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany, bypassing Ukraine. Critics of the Kremlin have called for blocking the new pipeline from beginning operations as punishment for Russia’s malign activities in Ukraine and elsewhere abroad.

Nord Stream 2 “is already a tool of blackmail … of helping President Putin dictating gas prices all around Europe,” Morawiecki said, adding: “We were right in raising the red flag.”

One example of ‘progress’

As part of the flurry of activity around the summit, Michel hosted a five-hour meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whose countries were at war for three decades over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, until a brief war last year in which Azerbaijan emerged with a decisive victory.

In a statement, Aliyev “emphasized the constructive atmosphere between Armenia and Azerbaijan” at the summit, thanked the EU, and urged that the countries not “miss this opportunity and continue efforts to ensure lasting peace in the region.”

The thawing relations between the longtime enemies in the Caucasus offered a rare bright spot in the otherwise tense discussions about Ukraine and Russia, and leaders took note.

“I see huge progress made in bilateral relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda told reporters. “I would say that probably this Eastern Partnership summit encouraged these two countries to do more in order to get closer to each other.”

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