VILNIUS/PARIS (Reuters) – A top NATO official said on Friday it was the wrong time to talk about mending relations with Russia, but EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker sounded more conciliatory, saying the bloc must begin to engage with Moscow again in areas of common interest.
The comments indicated diverging approaches by two key Western organisations on how to deal with Russia 10 months after it illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, provoking the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, said the situation in Ukraine appeared to be deteriorating and Russians and pro-Russian separatists did not seem ready to fully implement the Minsk ceasefire agreement.
Speaking to Reuters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, Vershbow, an American, said the “general view among allies” was that NATO should stand by its decision last year to suspend all practical cooperation with Russia in protest at Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.
“We want to see full implementation of the Minsk agreement, and that, I think, is the prerequisite of any forward steps with Russia. Right now it’s probably not the right time to even speculate about such steps,” he said.
Six Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in attacks by separatists in the past 24 hours, the Kiev military said on Friday, as fighting raged at the airport in the eastern city of Donetsk.
European Commission President Juncker, however, was more conciliatory towards Moscow in comments made at an event in Paris, saying he did not take part in “Russia-bashing”.
“Today it (Russia) is a strategic problem but I want it to become a strategic partner again. We must find points of common interest that we need to cultivate with Russia without having to talk all the time about Crimea,” he said.
“It won’t work if we stay on the sole issue of Crimea, however important it is, however unacceptable the violation of international law by the Russians is, we must find something else to talk about,” he said.
The 28-nation EU, together with the United States, has imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.
US President Barack Obama said after a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday that the two had agreed that sanctions on Russia should remain until Moscow stops aggression in Ukraine.
EU foreign ministers are set on Monday to discuss a paper by foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini which tests their readiness to re-engage with Russia in some policy areas if Moscow fulfils a Ukraine truce accord.
The paper has raised concerns among more hawkish EU countries. One EU diplomat said now was “not the time to be enhancing the relationship” with Russia as that would send the wrong message to President Vladimir Putin.