Russia, Germany urge OSCE to boost Ukraine observers to 1,000
Russia and Germany on Friday urged the OSCE to more than double the number of its observers in Ukraine to 1,000, to monitor a sputtering ceasefire as the EU downplayed the threat of new sanctions against Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his German counterpart Franck-Walter Steinmeier "called on the OSCE to make a quick decision on extending the mandate of its special monitoring mission and ramping up its size to 1,000 observers" from the current 452, the foreign ministry in Moscow said.
The ministers said more monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were required to "efficiently monitor" the latest Ukraine ceasefire between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government troops in areas of Ukraine bordering Russia.
Hours earlier, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier said the group was still being denied full access to monitor the truce in eastern Ukraine.
"There are areas which we simply can't reach," Zannier told AFP in Riga where he attended an EU foreign ministers meeting.
France and Germany brokered a second Minsk peace agreement with Moscow and Kiev last month which so far seems to be holding after it took effect February 15, though the situation remains fragile and the outlook for full implementation is uncertain.
The concern in Brussels is that if the accord falls apart, like its September predecessor, that would bolster calls in Washington for much tougher action, including possibly arming Kiev to combat the pro-Russian rebels.
"So far the ceasefire... is not perfect but for sure the trend is positive," EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said as EU foreign ministers gathered in the Latvian capital Riga, where Russian intervention in Ukraine is seen as a direct security threat.
- 'A fragile improvement' -
Asked about the possibility of additional sanctions, Mogherini said: "Obviously they are always there."
"They will not be lifted until something really good happens on the ground and on the other side we are always ready to increase the pressure if needed," she said.
"But I don't start from that. I start from the positive actions the European Union can do now to make things work."
What matters is the ceasefire, especially the withdrawal of heavy weapons by both sides, Mogherini said, and to strengthen OSCE monitoring implementation on the ground.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there had been "a fragile improvement" in east Ukraine but warned that "if there was a breach of the accords then we would certainly have to reinforce the sanctions".
A rebel attack on the key government-held port city of Mariupol would be a "game changer," he added.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier echoed Mogherini's stand, saying Berlin was focused on the Minsk accord, not sanctions.
"We are trying to accelerate again the (peace) process. That is the issue in the foreground and not the question if there will be new sanctions," Steinmeier said as he arrived for the Riga meeting.
As the Ukraine crisis deepened last year, the EU cautiously followed the US lead to hit prominent Russians and Ukrainians with travel bans and asset freezes.
- SWIFT 'nuclear option' -
But the shooting down of a Malaysia Airline plane over Ukraine in July, blamed on pro-Russian rebels in the east, saw holdouts Germany and Italy agree to much tougher economic sector sanctions.
The question since has been what comes next?
Poland Friday raised the "nuclear option" of blocking Russian access to the SWIFT bank settlement system, an explosive move capable of crippling Russia's economy that Moscow has said would be tantamount to war.
"When it comes to sanctions, SWIFT is the nuclear weapon. It is the last resort and we are all aware of that," Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna said at a press conference in Warsaw with British counterpart Philip Hammond.
"This would be a very extreme sanction measure. It would have a very significant impact on the Russian economy," Hammond said, adding that discussion on the option was taking place "primarily in the US."
At the same time, work had to continue on "a whole range of potential sanctions options, so that we have maximum flexibility, maximum agility and maximum speed in reacting to any provocation," Hammond said.
European Union leaders will tackle the issue at a summit in March as the earliest sanctions imposed for a year progressively come up for renewal.
Washington and NATO charged earlier this week that Russian soldiers were "fighting and dying in large numbers in eastern Ukraine."
Moscow dismissed the claims as fanciful.
© 2015 AFP