Ukraine’s prime minister has warned that Vladimir Putin is attempting to divide the EU in the same way the Russian president has split Ukraine, saying provocative Russian military excursions and funding of political allies in Europe risks splintering the bloc at a time when unity is essential.
Arseniy Yatseniuk said if the Kremlin succeeded at dividing EU member states over the bloc’s economic sanctions regime against Russia, it would be a “disaster for the free world” and urged those governments contemplating a sanctions rollback to think twice.
“Russia is constantly provoking the EU and Nato, starting with submarines and ending with Bear jets flying across the borders of Nato member states,” Mr Yatseniuk said in an interview in Brussels, where he was meeting with EU leaders holding a two-day summit.
“Russia is trying to create turbulence in the EU through supporting far-right political movements,” he added. “This is a copycat case of what they did in Ukraine.”
Mr Yatseniuk’s visit to Brussels comes when the EU is once again wrestling with its differences over Russia policy. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, and a group of hardline countries initially urged an early renewal of the EU sanctions that expire in July — and even the passage of new economic measures after Russian-backed troops last month took the strategically important Ukrainian town of Debaltseve. Yet the push faced resistance from France, Italy and Spain, forcing EU leaders to resort to a more ambiguous declaration of intent.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly attempted to stiffen the EU’s resolve by sending their leaders to Brussels during summits — President Petro Poroshenko has attended three summits since taking office in June. Mr Yatseniuk acknowledged his visit was aimed at ensuring the recent ceasefire deal reached in Minsk is not used as an excuse to weaken sanctions.
“That’s what Russia wants, to use this Minsk deal as a pretext for pullback of sanctions and for going back to business as usual; that’s for sure, crystal clear,” Mr Yatseniuk said. “Some EU member states were reluctant to maintain and rollover sanctions, or scale up sanctions. Putin will definitely play this card, trying to split unity within the EU.”
Despite his concerns about Russian attempts to divide the EU — and split Europe from the US, which he described as Mr Putin’s “most crucial quest” — Mr Yatseniuk said he would continue to push for defensive weapons from western allies. The idea has risked opening a political rift between the two most important drivers of Russia policy: Washington and Berlin.
While the Obama administration has publicly acknowledged it is considering supplying Kiev with arms, backed by hardline EU countries like Poland and Lithuania, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vehemently opposed the move.
“To underpin diplomatic efforts, we always need to have a quite strong Ukrainian military — not for offensive, but for defensive [purposes], to deter Russian-led terrorists, not to allow them to move further. This will strengthen our joint position,” Mr Yatseniuk said.
Brussels has instead backed Kiev financially — supporting a new $17.5bn International Monetary Fund bailout and an additional €3.5bn in aid from the EU budget. Still, EU finance ministers have expressed wariness that Mr Yatseniuk’s government has not sufficiently embraced reform to warrant additional cash.
Mr Yatseniuk insisted Kiev had moved aggressively on economic reform, and came to Brussels armed with a glossy 15-page brochure highlighting the timetable for implementing various overhauls.
“We did a lot of energy sector [reform], and I think this is one of the big victories of my regime,” he said. “From today, no more intermediaries, no more vampires sitting in the Ukrainian-owned gas and oil companies.”
Mr Yatseniuk insisted Ukraine would be “whiter than white” in implementing the latest ceasefire deal for eastern Ukraine agreed in Minsk last month. However senior European officials fear the devolution of power to rebel regions called for in the pact will prove impossible for Kiev to deliver, giving Russia an opening to claim it has been breached.
Ukraine’s parliament passed a law on Tuesday offering limited self-rule to separatist-held regions in the east of the country. But it added a condition that the law would only come into effect after the regions hold elections for regional representatives under Ukrainian law — something that goes beyond what was stipulated in the Minsk II agreement.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Kiev of “turning on its head” what had been agreed at Minsk, while rebel leaders threatened to call off the ceasefire.
Mr Yatseniuk insisted free elections were an essential part of Minsk and noted the political price he paid to pass the reforms. “Not everyone is happy with the Minsk deal and we together with the president have already paid a huge political price. But we believe this is the right way to go,” he said. “Let me be very clear on elections: If you remember, local elections is a key part of the Minsk deal. We are ready to hold local elections in these areas, but these elections have to be free and fair”.
Mr Yatseniuk shrugged off rumours of tensions with President Petro Poroshenko as Kremlin-disseminated “crap”. Asked whether the two leaders adopted a “good-cop, bad-cop” strategy on handling Moscow, he replied: “Today we have just two bad cops.”