European Union officials are calling for a stronger response by the bloc to Russian aggression toward Ukraine, warning that Moscow’s ultimate aim is to absorb parts of eastern Ukraine where a war has raged for seven years.
The warnings came in a report written by the EU’s diplomatic office that was circulated earlier this week among EU members and reviewed by RFE/RL.
Since erupting in 2014, the conflict pitting Kremlin-backed militias and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million. Fighting has ebbed and flowed, though last month tensions skyrocketed after Russia deployed more than 100,000 troops and heavy weaponry to its regions bordering Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected on a platform of trying to end the conflict, sought, and gained, vocal Western support in the face of Russian threats, and Moscow ultimately pulled back some of its forces.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met with Zelenskiy in Kyiv last week, criticized the Russian deployment.
The European Union has struggled to find a coherent approach to dealing with Russia, its largest trading partner. And its approach to Ukraine has been criticized as weak.
An EU road map that could have ultimately led to Ukrainian membership was a catalyst for the Kyiv street protests in 2013-14 that culminated in the ouster of the pro-Russian president and the outbreak of war.
The EU document reviewed by RFE/RL -- called Options Paper: EU Actions To Strengthen Ukraine’s Resilience And Respond to Possible Further Escalation -- recommends a series of steps the bloc could take, including helping Ukraine lower its energy dependence on Russia and supporting Kyiv’s efforts to “tackle hybrid threats including countering cyberthreats and disinformation.”
The paper was issued by European External Action Service, the bloc’s diplomatic office, and circulated among ambassadors of the EU’s 27 members.
The paper also warns that Moscow was ultimately seeking to absorb the parts in eastern Ukraine that are part of the historical Donbas region, saying that organizing illegitimate elections and issuing passports to locals are “aimed at de facto integration of Ukraine’s nongovernmental-controlled areas into Russia.”
The paper calls for the bloc to do more to deny recognition of Russian passports issued to residents of parts of the Donbas, as well as Crimea, the Black Sea region that was forcibly annexed by Moscow in 2014.
A 2015 peace deal known as the Minsk accords, which Kyiv and Moscow agreed to, would grant the Donbas regions substantial autonomy within Ukraine. But greater autonomy would potentially give Moscow more power over the region -- and possible veto power over Ukraine’s long-term goals of joining the EU or even NATO.
NATO membership, in particular, is seen as a critical threat by Russia.
The EU paper also calls for helping Ukraine in its coronavirus vaccination efforts, “especially of vulnerable groups in order to avoid further weakening of the country through a prolonged health and socio-economic crisis.
The paper is expected to be formalized by the External Action Service in the coming weeks, according to officials familiar with it.
Asked specifically about the paper’s assertions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on May 13: “Russia is not planning to absorb anyone and has never done so in the past.”