22 Jul 2014

Flight MH17 – Putin tacks to restrain EU

Brussels is under a leaden sky today for a foreign ministers’ meeting that is expected to be dominated by the issues of Russia and Ukraine.

Russia's President Putin chats with Foreign Minister Lavrov as they attend the VI BRICS Summit in Fortaleza

One source who’d cast an eye over the draft conclusions suggested they were “lamentable” and hardly added to past communiques. Foreign ministers are meeting now with some determined to harden up the language.

“Putin follows our diaries, knows when we’re meeting,” one EU diplomat told me. The Russian president will have “carefully calibrated” the small and late progress in dealing with the victims of the Malaysian plane to coincide with the gathering of 28 foreign ministers in Brussels today, the diplomat suggested.

The statement that Flight MH17’s black box flight recorder would be handed over and the access granted to investigators at the crash site are seen as the result of strings pulled from Moscow to mitigate EU action. Though some of those most reluctant here to act against Russia will need little encouragement to stay their hand.

The foreign ministers are expected to ask EU officials to prepare another list of Russian business chiefs to add to those already given pariah status. The eventual list could come closer than previous ones to Putin’s inner circle.

But theĀ Tier 3 sectoral sanctions first drafted by the European Commission last April will remain in the drawer. One EU diplomat called them a “deterrent” that shouldn’t be used – it would be a sign of failure, the official said, if they were deployed.

David Cameron in the Commons yesterday indicated that Britain would be pushing for an embargo on future defence contracts but it’s not clear how far that will get.

In their defence, some EU diplomats say major Russian businesses are struggling to find loans, feeling the pinch on their movements and investments. But last week, the EU very nearly appointed as foreign affairs spokesperson someone – Italy’s foreign affairs minister, Federica Mogherini – as the foreign affairs person for the whole 28.

Today President Hollande reportedly said that he might hold back on one of the two French-built assault helicopter ships bound for Russia (presumably on the one that’s not ready to be delivered – one is due to sail into the Black Sea this autumn).

President Hollande’s reluctance to freeze the contract completely had been attacked by President Obama and yesterday by David Cameron. Mr Hollande has now said that: “For the time being, a level of sanctions has not been decided on that would prevent this delivery. Does that mean that the rest of the contract – the second Mistral – can be carried through? That depends on Russia’s attitude.”

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