KIEV (AFP) – The European Union (EU) holds a new round of talks on Thursday to try to agree on the latest round of sanctions against Moscow as a fragile truce in Ukraine appeared to be largely holding.
EU leaders agreed last week to slap more punitive measures targeting Russia’s stagnant economy but Friday’s ceasefire forced a rethink on the timing of the sanctions.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Wednesday for the new restrictions to be introduced quickly as they could always be lifted if the ceasefire keeps a lid on the five months of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
But EU envoys decided to suspend their debate until Thursday after some members – wary of further economic reprisals by Russia – said they wanted to wait and see what happened on the ground in Ukraine.
In a surprise announcement on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Russia had withdrawn the bulk of its forces from his country and pledged greater autonomy for the separatist east in moves that could help sustain the peace pact.
The United States described Poroshenko’s comments on the Russian troops as “a good, tiny first step” but said it was unable to verify what would be a potentially significant development in the five-month crisis.
The West is stepping up sanctions against major Russian businesses and allies of President Vladimir Putin as punishment for what it views as Moscow’s military aggression in the ex-Soviet state.
NATO said last month that Russia had funnelled in at least 1,000 elite troops and heavy weapons and massed 20,000 men on the border to support a rebel counter-surge that has dramatically reversed the fortunes of the Ukrainian army.
Poroshenko said Friday’s ceasefire – the first backed by both Kiev and Moscow since the pro-Russian insurgency erupted in April – had dramatically improved security in the country’s war-ravaged industrial rustbelt.
He said that according to Ukrainian intelligence, 70 per cent of Russia’s forces have been removed.
“This gives us hope that there are good prospects for the peace initiative.”
Moscow denies having even deployed troops or weaponry across the border, and Putin dismissed the NATO claims as a reckless attempt to “revive” the Cold War-era Western military bloc.