KYIV -- Ukrainian officials and politicians have reacted with alarm to reports that the Council of Europe is considering lifting sanctions imposed against Russia over its military intervention in Crimea out of fears that Moscow might otherwise leave the body.
"We are extremely concerned," Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's ambassador to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), told RFE/RL from Strasbourg on November 27. "The issue now goes far beyond interests of Ukraine. It's in the interests of the entire region to defend the Council of Europe from Russian blackmail and leaning toward Russia."
Kuleba's comments came after the Financial Times (FT) reported on November 26 that Moscow was demanding that its voting rights in PACE -- which were revoked in 2014 in response to Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula -- be restored, and that the secretary-general of the Council of Europe was lobbying in support of the idea.
FT said Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland had been touring European capitals warning that Moscow could withdraw from the 47-member Council of Europe, which oversees the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), unless its demands were met.
"It would really be very, very bad if Russia was to leave...because the convention and court has been so important for Russian citizens," FT quoted Jagland as saying. "It will be a negative development for Europe, because we will have a Europe without Russia. It would be a big step back for Europe."
The interview with Jagland sparked anger in Kyiv. In a Facebook post, Volodymyr Ariyev, Ukraine's PACE delegation head and a lawmaker for the ruling party of President Petro Poroshenko, accused Jagland of suffering from "Stockholm syndrome," suggesting he had become a hostage to Russian interests.
But some do agree there would be a serious downside to Russia's absence from the Council of Europe, PACE, and by extension the ECHR. Russia-related cases account for some one-third of the Strasbourg-based court's caseload.
Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch in Moscow told the FT that the court "has been the most successful international protection mechanism" for Russians' rights, adding that it was the "court of last resort in a situation when they cannot find justice in domestic courts."
Russia has tried to claw back its vote for months, and in June it canceled its payments to the Council of Europe in retaliation for its delegation there being stripped of voting rights, Reuters reported at the time.
The Independent, citing Russia's Foreign Ministry, said also that "persecution" of its delegates was another reason for the move.
Russia's reported push to restore its PACE voting rights comes as a new European commissioner on human rights is to be elected in January. Moscow has said it won't recognize the winner of the election as long as it has no vote.
There have also been suggestions that, should Russia's voting rights be restored, it could be held up as a victory by President Vladimir Putin ahead of Russia's presidential election in March. Putin has not announced his candidacy, but he is widely expected to do so soon, and to win.
Should Russia return to PACE in January, Kuleba said, "it will be an excellent gift to Putin on the eve of elections."
Kuleba, who has worked since starting his role in Strasbourg in the summer of 2016 to keep Russia from returning to PACE until all obligations are met to lift the sanctions, said the issue of allowing Moscow an unconditional return has been "evolving in shadows, as no one seems to be interested in the Council of Europe staff."
If Russia is given back its voting rights now, Kuleba said, Ukraine would remain a member of the Council of Europe, "though our parliamentarians [would] seriously consider pulling out from PACE."
"The government in its reaction will not violate our legal obligations before the council but will review all types of cooperation based on goodwill and recommendations," Kuleba said.
"Ukraine needs a strong [Council of Europe] to defend human rights in Ukraine and in the territories occupied by Russia, and to help us with reforms," Kuleba said, referring to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where government forces are still fighting Kremlin-backed militants in a war that has taken more than 10,000 lives. "If Russia is allowed to return to PACE without paying a price, [the Council of Europe] will become weak and lose credibility in Ukraine."
He added, "Make peace with Russia at the expense of Ukraine -- that's exactly what's happening."