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Czech PM: 'Important' To Keep Sanctions On Russia

  • RFE/RL

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka says it is essential that international sanctions against Russia continue until all sides in the Ukraine conflict meet the terms of a cease-fire deal agreed to in February.

"It's important for us for sanctions to stay in place until the Minsk accords are fulfilled," Sobotka told RFE/RL in an interview in Prague. "Unfortunately, as can be seen from comments these days by countries that are party to the Minsk accords, the agreements are not being fulfilled completely by either side in the conflict -- meaning neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian side."

A truce agreed in Minsk in February between representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and pro-Russian separatists set out the need for an end to fighting in eastern Ukraine, restoration of border control to Ukrainian officials, and drawbacks of heavy weapons, among other things.

But sporadic fighting has continued in a conflict that has killed at least 6,400 people since it began in March 2014.

Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region on June 24

Ukrainian soldiers in the Donetsk region on June 24

Kyiv and Western governments accuse Moscow of providing troops, heavy weaponry, and military advice to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine who refuse to recognize the authority of the national government.

The European Union recently extended sanctions targeting Russia's energy, financial, and military sectors until at least January, and kept in place for 12 more months a ban on investment in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia last year.

But March discussions ahead of that move exposed cracks in the EU bloc, which requires unanimity on sanctions decisions. Members like the Baltic states and Poland have encouraged a hard line against Russia while Greece, where disaffection with the European Union runs high as a threat of Greek default on huge debts increases, has reportedly peddled a softer line on Moscow.

Ukraine A "Great Shock"

The United States and other countries have also levied sanctions against Moscow, and Russia has been expelled from the club of advanced economies formerly known as the Group of Eight.

"If Russia further escalates tension in eastern Ukraine, or tries militarily to change the current situation in eastern Ukraine, that would be a reason to tighten the sanctions further," Sobotka told RFE/RL.

"Otherwise I think sanctions should stay in place at the level they're at as a way to ensure Ukraine and Russia have the motivation to find a resolution."

Russia has denied direct military involvement in the conflict, which is taking place in parts of Ukraine's eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Sobotka, whose countrymen have bitter memories of Warsaw Pact troops invading in 1968 to put down pro-democracy gains in Czechoslovakia, said that "what happened now with Russian policy as regards Ukraine has been a great shock for all of us."

He added that "Europe has to deal with this and react to it, and I'm glad Europe's reaction has been one where we act together."

Sobotka has clashed publicly with Czech President Milos Zeman over Prague's approach to Moscow since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea.

Freedom Of Choice

Zeman has consistently sought deeper ties with Russia and questioned Western sanctions aimed at punishing Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. Zeman drew sharp criticism for a Victory Day trip to Moscow in May that some say undermined EU unity by appearing with Putin on the heels of a military parade.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial post in the Czech system, with the government in charge of foreign policy.

Sobotka was speaking to RFE/RL at an event to mark 20 years since the U.S.-funded international media organization moved its broadcast headquarters from Munich to Prague.

Sobotka added that it is important for the futures of countries such as Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine to be decided.

"Their [EU] membership, I believe, is the primary challenge," he said. "The real task for the nearest 10 or maybe 15 years, provided that these countries are able to meet the EU membership conditions, is to grant them a European perspective."

Sobotka said the three countries are "sovereign countries that have a right to decide about their future themselves."

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