Photo: press service of the Council of Europe
This week marked the tenth anniversary of the Eastern Partnership in Brussels. The main news about this event, however, wasn’t about the “partnership,“ and not even the European Union. On 13 May, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin suddenly announced to journalists that due to the actions of several European states, the Minsk peace agreements may be soon “killed.”
The reason for such a radical statement is the crisis that unfolds in the Council of Europe (CoE), the international body that includes 47 member nations, including Ukraine and Russia.
Russia had been blackmailing the CoE for two years already, both financially (Russia has stopped paying its membership fees to the CoE budget) and politically (by threatening to withdraw from the organization). Russia’s demand is categorical: the Council of Europe should lift the sanctions placed on Moscow without it meeting any of the requirements for such a step.
Now, a new decisive battle is ahead. And the push to “forgive” Russia is stronger than ever.
What is at stake?
First, it is true that the talks about Ukraine withdrawing from Minsk peace accords (which were drawn up to resolve the war between Ukraine and Russian-led militants in the Donbas) because of the events in the CoE indeed took place in Brussels. The European Pravda outlet received confirmation of this from a couple of sources, including European politicians with whom Klimkin had discussions. As well, this was publicly confirmed by MEP Rebecca Harms.
The stumbling block lies in the processes which may lead to lifting sanctions against Russia at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Officially, according to the requirements of PACE documents, sanctions can’t be lifted on Russia before Russia withdraws from the Donbas and ceases its occupation of Crimea. But because few believe the implementation of both demands is possible, the documents foresee that PACE can make concessions even if the requirements are met only partially.
“If Russia returns to PACE without meeting at least some requirements, Ukraine will lose its trust in the CoE, and the trust in the relations with Germany will be undermined. In addition, the prospects for the Minsk process will be very poor,” Harms told, describing Klimkin’s negotiations with international partners.
The Ministry of International Affairs insists that Klimkin’s statements are not blackmail but an acknowledgment of the problem. Meaning that it’s not Ukraine that will leave the Minsk agreements, but that the agreements themselves will cease to exist. Nobody argues, however, that Klimkin has drawn out the nuclear weapons to pressure Ukraine’s partners and in the battle for the CoE.
What kind of sanctions are at stake?
The irony is that the said sanctions are minuscule and targeted at the Russian members in the Assembly, without any economic component. Formally, these sanctions do not have any power, as Russia does not provide membership lists to Strasbourg. However, these are technical details. Everybody knows: once the Russian parliamentarians decide to go back to work at PACE, they will face limitations. They will be limited in holding positions in the Assembly, and will probably be limited in voting rights.
In reality, these limitations are symbolic and don’t harm Russia much. More important is the agreement of the West to lift sanctions only because of Russian blackmail, without any concessions from the Russian Federation, which will create a precedent that is categorically unacceptable for Ukraine.
The next PACE session is planned for the end of June, and it will be very important.
First, the session will elect its next Secretary General, or successor of Thorbjørn Jagland. Moscow is already sending a message that if their voice is not taken into account, Russia will not recognize the new candidate.
Second, this summer will mark two years since Russia stopped paying membership fees to the CoE budget. According to the CoE statute, this means that new, additional sanctions may be applied against Russia. In Western Europe, many think that this process will lead to Russia’s expulsion, or withdrawal, from the CoE. And despite Ukraine insisting time after time that it will not initiate such a severe punishment against Russia (it is in Ukraine’s interest to keep Russia under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights), this perspective threatens European diplomats to such an extent that they are ready to give in to the blackmail.
But why has this theme become so relevant now, more than a month before the session?
Moreover, they approved it with a huge number of votes.
On 14 May, when Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin had discussions and tried to convince his European colleagues in Brussels, a meeting of the Committee of Ministers, the key governing body of the CoE, was held in Strasbourg. According to the sources of European Pravda, 39 out of 47 member states supported the ministerial project in which the Committee of Ministers opened the door for Russia’s return by an extraordinary procedure.
On Friday, at the ministerial meeting in Helsinki, this decision was approved without changes and further discussion, with six countries voting against.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the Council of Europe didn’t comment on the division of votes, although he confirmed that the decision has been approved, with Ukraine voting against it.
“First, we cannot conceptually agree with the Committee of Ministers making unilateral concessions for Russia. Second, the decision itself contains elements with which we categorically disagree,” Kuleba said.
One is that Russia can return to PACE in the middle of the year, although this goes against the statute of the CoE. The second element, if interpreted creatively, may lead to lifting sanctions against Russia. And the Russians and their friends can indeed interpret documents creatively.
European Pravda had a chance to see the approved document, receiving it from diplomatic sources, and confirmed Mr. Kuleba’s conclusions – that the decisions approved by the ministers on Friday are an important step in “forgiving” Russia. But, curiously, there is no mention of the word “Russia” in the document.
The main idea is to implement a new type of sanction procedure against violator states.
However, there is also good news: the Council of Ministers didn’t appropriate the roles of other bodies, particularly, the Parliamentary Assembly, although they entertained such an idea, and Russia had insisted on it. This was confirmed by the Ukrainian ambassador:
“Even though we voted against it, we were able to defend a few important norms in the interests of Ukraine. One of them was the norm that the new sanction mechanism, on which we are starting to work, will complement the existing sanctions mechanism, not replace it.”
Who is protecting Russia in the CoE?
It was reported earlier that the Germans are the largest supporters of “forgiving” Russia in the CoE. This didn’t change.
Kuleba refused to share which delegations opposed Ukraine in this battle, but the secret was revealed by Minister Klimkin himself when he spoke about his discussions in Brussels.
“The Germans heard them, the French, and the Dutch. Did they agree (with Ukraine’s arguments –Ed)? Ask them. However, we spoke with the German minister a lot today,” he said.
The vote in Strasbourg showed that although the Germans, French, and Dutch heard the arguments, they didn’t agree. But this isn’t the end. Russia’s “forgiveness” has to be supported in PACE. And this is Ukraine’s last chance.
On that date, the meeting of the Rules and Regulations Committee of PACE will take place to review the proposals on the return of the Russian delegation. There are two Ukrainians in this committee – Volodymyr Ariev (head of the Ukrainian delegation to PACE) and Serhiy Kiral. They will try to convince the delegates from other countries that forgiving Russia will hurt them as well.
Speaking to European Pravda, Volodymyr Ariev confirmed the previous information about Russia’s supporters in the CoE.
“The main driving force for Russia’s return is Germany; luckily, there are signals proving that there is no unanimity about Russia’s unconditional return,” he said.
What will Ukraine do?
This part is the most optimistic. In conversations with other diplomats and officials, European Pravda got a strong sense that nobody wants to give up.
And the radical actions of Klimkin, who decided to use the “nuclear button,” confirm this assumption. Kyiv has officially warned the CoE that it is ready for severe measures.
“At the Council of Ministers session in Tuesday, Ukraine had announced that Russia’s return to PACE without fulfilling the demands of the resolutions is unacceptable and the ministerial committee’s promotion of this process is shameful. We stressed that this decision will have severely negative consequences not only for the Council of Europe itself but in a broader context.
If the decision allows for Russia’s unconditional return, Ukraine will significantly review its scope of collaboration with the Council of Europe as an institution which has discredited itself. And the immediate result of today’s decision is the cancellation of Pavlo Klimkin’s participation in the ministerial meeting. The minister has already canceled his visit to Helsinki, and for the first time in many years, Ukraine will not be represented at the ministerial level,” Kuleba said.
The parliamentarians also getting ready to resist.
Many are ready to go as far as to stop the work of the delegation.
‘Many are ready as far as to completely stop it. We will take rigorous measures in accordance with the decisions adopted by the assembly. Personally, I don’t see the point in staying in PACE if the Council of Europe destroys the principles on which it is based,” Ariev said.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t give Ukraine credits that president-elect Zelenskyy is not involved in this battle and hasn’t even formed a foreign policy team. We can only hope that this will happen as soon as possible.
European Pravda, as an outlet writing in detail about the Council of Europe, can confirm that the situation is indeed very difficult.
“It is very important for Zelenskyy to understand that the mood in the key European capitals is is similar to the events of 1938. There are also intentions to develop relations with Russia with the help of third parties. Now there is also a desire to develop relations with Russia at the expense of third parties. Not all share this policy, but in several key capitals, in fact, there is a mood to move that way. And the team of President Zelensky must realize this risk and set up his foreign policy bloc as soon as possible,” Dmytro Kuleba agreed.
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