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EU plays it cautious over Ukraine-Russia tensions

The EU is aware of the risk of playing tough with Russia, diplomats and analysts say
The EU is aware of the risk of playing tough with Russia, diplomats and analysts say AFP/File

Paris (AFP)

The European Union is aiming to de-escalate tensions between Kiev and Moscow this week after Russia seized three Ukrainian navy ships and their crew, worrying about putting fuel on the fire, diplomats and analysts say.

The bloc is aware of the risk of playing hardball against Russia, which has been locked in a low-level militarised conflict with Ukraine for nearly five years.

That's why the EU on Wednesday strongly condemned Russia's actions, but snubbed Ukraine's call for further sanctions against Moscow, at least for now.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bild newspaper she wanted Ukraine to be "sensible" and help lower tensions through dialogue.

"The issue (of sanctions) is still on the table. It's among the options. But for the moment the priority is to encourage each side to de-escalate, to try to put out the fire," a high-ranking European diplomat said.

If Russia continues to block passage through the Kerch Strait off annexed Crimea, where the navy incident took place last Sunday, and refuses to free the Ukrainian sailors, then the question of sanctions could be discussed at an EU foreign ministers' meeting in two weeks' time, he said.

The West is also wondering whether Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is "seeking to benefit politically" from the incident, said Jan Koehler, a political analyst and expert on post-Soviet history at the Free University of Berlin.

Poroshenko has signed an act imposing martial law for 30 days in response.

- Domestic pandering -

While anti-Russian rhetoric played well with Ukrainians frustrated with the Kremlin's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing of an insurgency, Koehler noted that the law might be to give Poroshenko's low poll figures a lift ahead of a March 2019 re-election bid.

"There is incredible frustration in a big part of the population because of the permanent corruption by a small oligarchy," he said.

Francois Heisbourg, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Ukraine was looking to use the navy incident to swing the West even more strongly to its side in the conflict.

"It would be a mistake to let them believe that if they escalate things that we would just follow," he said.

A former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, told French radio that a sanctions-only policy against Russia "doesn't work" and suggested that President Vladimir Putin might also be using the incident as a domestic distraction.

"The Russians have also highlighted the affair, probably to get (Russian) retirees to forget that their situation isn't getting any better" because of Russia's economic troubles aggravated by previous rounds of EU and US sanctions over the Ukraine conflict, he said.

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