NATO, EU talks overshadowed by Russian tragedy


Author: Teri Schultz

Posted: 20/12/2016


Just hours after NATO and Russia wrapped up a “frank” meeting at NATO headquarters and the European Union formally extended sanctions on the Kremlin, both organizations rushed to offer condolences to Moscow on the shocking news that the Russian ambassador to Turkey had been murdered at an art exhibit in Ankara.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the killing of Ambassador Andrei Karlov, shot point-blank by a man reported to be an off-duty police officer shouting about Russia’s role in Aleppo. “My condolences to [Karlov’s] family and the Russian people,” Stoltenberg tweeted. “[There’s] no justification for such a heinous act.”

European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, also released a statement, calling the attack “inconceivable” and extending “fullest sympathies”. “The European Union condemns in the strongest possible manner this attack against your country’s representative in Turkey,” Mogherini said. “We wish to express our solidarity with Russia in the face of this criminal act of violence.”

The shooting on NATO soil came at the end of a day in which the NATO-Russia Council spent three-and-a-half hours in debate described as “frank”, “substantial” and “professional” but ending with a reaffirmation of “profound disagreements” over Ukraine.

“In times of tension, dialogue is more important than ever,” Stoltenberg said in a statement after the session that focused on Ukraine, Afghanistan and mutual transparency related issues such as troop movements and air safety.

The alliance had been trying for months to get Russian Ambassador Alexander Grushko to agree to a session, but a dispute over what would be on the formal agenda – in other words, the fact that Ukraine needed to be discussed – held up the scheduling until the final days of the year. Grushko explained after the session that this was settled by holding the meeting “without an approved agenda, which enabled all delegations to address issues that they deemed important.”


Stoltenberg: Situation in eastern Ukraine ‘deeply concerning’

A NATO official says all 28 allies emphasized to Grushko that they will never accept the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the event that led NATO to launch reassurance and deterrence measures in countries along Russia’s borders.

Stoltenberg described the current situation in eastern Ukraine as deeply concerning. Despite the conclusion of the Minsk ceasefire agreement in February 2015, the situation continues to deteriorate, with both the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government failing to fulfill their obligations to stop shooting and pull back their equipment. “Ceasefire violations have reached record levels in recent months,” Stoltenberg noted. “Heavy weapons have not been withdrawn and OSCE monitors [there to observe implementation of Minsk] have repeatedly become targets.”


Ukraine reported that five of its soldiers were killed in the latest outburst of fighting in the disputed Donbas region in eastern Ukraine late Sunday, which NATO officials said underscored the seriousness of the situation.

NATO officials say in the meeting Grushko defended Russia’s unannounced buildup of troops near NATO countries’ borders by explaining that the Kremlin’s “snap exercises” always kept the number of soldiers in any single operation to 12,500. That’s below the threshhold that requires prior notification under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s “Vienna Document”.

One diplomat present at the meeting rejected Russia’s explanation, pointing out that some Russian exercises massed more than 120,000 personnel, practicing “side-by-side and with a common purpose.” That’s not in keeping with the Vienna Document, this official said, calling it a “guise of exercises as a platform for aggressive behavior, such as the illegal annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.”

But in his assessment, Grushko agrees that European security continues to be degraded, but blames that on NATO’s reinforced presence. “These measures weaken regional security,” he said, “and consequently, the security of those allies whose defense was intended to be strengthened by these measures.” The ambassador suggests NATO should instead return to the situation “as of the end of 2013,” he said, which was prior to the Crimean annexation.

Without such a retreat, Grushko added, “it would be impossible to strengthen confidence-building measures.”


EU extends Russia sanctions

Meanwhile, across town at European Union headquarters, the bloc formally extended sanctions against Moscow until July 31, 2017 for its activities in Ukraine, as foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced enhanced cooperation and funding for Kyiv.

After meeting First Deputy Prime of Minister of Ukraine Stepan Kubiv, Mogherini and other EU officials announced expanded cooperation and increased funding, including more than 100 million euros to support “policy development, civil service and human resource management” and almost 53 millon euros toward a program working on improvements in the judiciary and law enforcement.

“Ukraine has taken important steps to address vital systemic challenges like corruption,” Mogherini said, commending the “determination” of the government and other authorities to reform.

Mogherini also hearkened back to the events that NATO allies were discussing, noting these developments are what citizens were asking for three years ago when demonstrations first broke out in Kyiv’s Maidan Square in favor of a closer relationship with the EU.

“A better Ukraine, a better life, a better future for all Ukrainians,” she said. “And our message today – as it has been constantly in that three years – is ‘count on the European Union to be there by your side’.”