Ukraine crisis to dominate EU foreign ministers meeting
Ukraine will dominate an EU foreign ministers' meeting on Monday amid uncertainty about Russia's real intentions just days before Brussels signs a historic association accord with Kiev.
Needing to keep in step on one crisis, European Union members must also chart policy for a disintegrating Iraq as the fallout from the Syrian conflict destabilises the Middle East and sparks a refugee exodus that is washing up on EU shores.
The association pact due to be signed between EU leaders and Ukraine's new Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko in Brussels on Friday is the very agreement that first sparked the crisis, with Moscow bitterly opposed to its former Soviet republic turning Westward.
The leaders are still trying to decipher the latest moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who grudgingly welcomed a ceasefire announced by Kiev this week while also ordering massive troop exercises.
Does Putin want a negotiated deal or will he continue to destabilise Ukraine to ensure Russia's continued influence there? Might he even be preparing the ground for another annexation of territory as he did in Crimea?
Russian actions present "a bit of a mixed picture," an EU official said.
Putin and Poroshenko on Sunday both called for dialogue to end the pro-Moscow uprising that has threatened the ex-Soviet state's survival and brought Europe to the edge of all-out war.
Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin will attend Monday's meeting in Luxembourg, chaired by EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton, and will be closely listened to, EU officials said.
On Friday, Washington imposed sanctions against another seven Ukraine separatists and it wants more from a hesitant EU where several member states, including France and Germany, are fearful of jeopardising hugely important trade ties with Russia.
The EU has so far imposed asset freezes and visa bans on more than 60 people, including close Putin associates, as part of "Phase 2" punitive measures. But it has baulked at broader sectoral sanctions -- so-called "Phase 3" measures which would hurt both sides.
The question of further sanctions "very much depends on how events develop on the ground," one EU official said.
- Iraq, Syria conflict, refugees -
In Iraq, dramatic advances by Sunni militants towards Baghdad and mass demonstrations by Shiite militias have left the country on the brink of collapse. Western policy is in disarray.
"It is a very grave situation," another EU diplomat said, echoing calls for the Shiite-led government to make room for Sunni factions, some of whom had worked with the Americans but had now sided with the insurgents.
UN Special Envoy for Iraq Nickolay Mladenov will attend Monday's meeting.
Adding to concerns about the EU's "Southern Neighbourhood", Libya also appears to be deteriorating with factions fighting for control of fiefdoms, especially in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Without a "constructive political engagement" by all parties, Libya "could face the threat of chaos, fragmentation, violence and terrorism," Ashton warned recently.
EU officials said ministers will also discuss the situation in Afghanistan where NATO forces complete their withdrawal this year and results of elections for a new president have been held up by allegations of poll fraud and cheating.
And they are expected to repeat calls for Thailand's military to restore democratic rule and respect human rights after a coup last month, approving plans to suspend official visits and delay the signing of a cooperation accord with Bangkok.
© 2014 AFP