French leader Francois Hollande has dangled the prospect of lifting EU sanctions on Russia ahead of the year’s first Ukraine summit.
"I think the sanctions must stop now. They must be lifted if there is progress. If there is no progress the sanctions will remain”, he said on France Inter radio on Monday (5 January).
“[Russian president] Mr Putin doesn’t want to annex eastern Ukraine. He’s told me that … what he wants is to remain influential. What he wants is for Ukraine not to fall into the Nato camp”, he added, referring to his impromptu meeting with Putin at a Moscow airport in December.
Hollande spoke on France Inter for two hours in a Q&A dominated by French economic problems.
His remarks come ahead of a summit of French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders - the so-called Normandy format - in Kazakhstan on 15 January.
They also come ahead of EU foreign ministers’ talks in Brussels four days later on whether to renew Russia sanctions when they begin to expire in March.
The New Year diplomacy will also see Putin go to the Czech Republic and to Poland for a World War II memorial on 27 January.
Hungarian media report he might visit Budapest in March and he has invited EU leaders to attend a WWII parade in Moscow on 9 May.
Foreign ministry officials from Normandy states met in Berlin on Monday to prepare for the Kazakhstan event.
But Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel warned they won't go if there is no prospect of a breakthrough.
"I will go to Astana on January 15 on one condition, which is that there should be a possibility of making new progress. If it's just to meet and talk without making any actual advances then there's no point. But I think there will be progress”, Hollande told France Inter.
Actions, not wordsRussian media said his remarks mean Moscow is off the hook for annexing Crimea and that France is keen to resume delivery of two warships.
Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, and the German centre-left SPD party have also said they want to re-engage with Russia.
But a US state department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said in Washington on Monday that Hollande’s said nothing new.
“Hollande said sanctions would be lifted if, quote, ‘progress is made’ toward a lasting peace. This has been our position, as well as the position of our European and other partners from the very beginning”, she noted.
“If Russia and the separatists implement the commitments each party made in Minsk [at ceasefire talks in September], we’ll be in a position to begin a rollback of some of the sanctions. But there can be no rollback until there is tangible progress on the ground … It’s not just simply words. It’s actions”.
A spokeswoman for the EU foreign service, Catherine Ray, the same day said there is no change in the EU position as spelled out in December summit conclusions in December.
“The EU will stay the course. The European Council is ready to take further steps [against Russia] if necessary”, the conclusions say.
WWII diplomacyFor is part, Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics - whose country took over the rotating EU presidency on 1 January - urged EU leaders not to break ranks.
Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania - former Soviet republics which host Russian-speaking minorities - fear that if Putin gets away with partitioning Ukraine he will cause trouble in the Baltic states in future.
WWII memorials are normally sacrosanct from contemporary disputes.
But asked on Monday if the Latvian president would go to Moscow for the 9 May parade, Rinkevics told Latvian broadcaster 900 Sekundes: “At the moment, I would really like to see the EU take a joint position. Before any decisions are made, the EU ought to discuss this matter”.