Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Greece Friday courting a European Union member ahead of the bloc’s vote on whether to renew sanctions against the Kremlin over its actions in Ukraine.
Germany said Friday it would support the gradual lifting of sanctions if Russia can demonstrate progress toward implementing the Minsk peace agreement that was signed in February 2015 in the hopes of putting an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“Sanctions are no end in themselves. An all-or-nothing approach doesn’t bring us closer to our goal,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger, Reuters reported.
Sanctions were imposed on Russia by the 28-member European Union and the United States following the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. A war pitting Ukrainian government forces against Russian-backed rebels broke out in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine in April 2014. The war has left over 9,300 people dead and 21,000 injured and displaced over 1.4 million, according to a count by the United Nations.
The sanctions imposed on Russia have targeted Putin’s inner circle as well as Russian businesses. Russia's economy has been badly battered through a combination of low global oil prices and sanctions. The World Bank has predicted the Russian economy will contract by 1.9 percent in 2016.
While Jaeger hinted at the possibility of fraying European unity over sanctions on Russia, a day earlier German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking at the G-7 meeting in Japan said it was too soon to talk about lifting sanctions. The head of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said he was “quite sure” that sanctions would be extended in July.
“I want to state clearly that our stance vis-à-vis Russia, including economic sanctions, will remain unchanged as long as the Minsk agreements are not fully implemented,” Tusk said.
Ahead of his trip to Greece, Putin penned an opinion piece in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini on the situation in Europe.
“Unfortunately, the decline in relations between Russia and the European Union stands in the way of a further strengthening of our cooperation, with an adverse effect on the dynamics of bilateral trade that fell by a third to $2.75 billion as compared to last year,” Putin wrote, without mentioning the word "sanctions."
Ukrainian officials have continued to argue that sanctions are an important tool for curbing Russian aggression in the region. The U.S. prolonged its sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine in March, saying Russia’s actions in Ukraine still pose “an unusual and extraordinary threat.”