BRUSSELS: The EU looks set to try to expand its role in the Ukraine crisis with a fresh show of public support for the Kiev government and threats of new, wider sanctions against Russia.
For the first time in the months-long crisis, one of its top officials, EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy who represents the bloc’s 28 leaders, will fly to Ukraine on Monday to meet the interim government.
“I will travel to Kiev,” he said in a statement “to continue our talks on how to stabilise the situation in Ukraine ahead of the presidential elections on 25 May, how to put an end to violence in Ukraine, and how to create an inclusive national dialogue.”
Van Rompuy said the visit was on the invitation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk.
It takes place as European Union foreign ministers gather in Brussels to attempt to reconcile broad differences over how to respond to the worst crisis in Europe since the Cold War.
The very next day, Yatsenyuk is to visit Brussels with members of his government for high-profile talks with the European Commission.
On the agenda of that meeting is an EU pledge of 11 billion euros ($15 billion) in grants and loans to put the economy back on its feet made in March when the bloc signed a landmark EU-Ukraine association accord.
It was the sudden refusal by then president Viktor Yanukovich late last year to sign the deal on closer trade and political ties with the EU that sparked the protests and led to his ouster.
Though the EU has begun rolling out the funds, instability and the weak administration are undermining the process.
Another key issue still to be resolved is how to ensure gas supplies to Ukraine after Russia, its main supplier, sharply increased prices and demanded the payment of billions in outstanding bills.
A second round of talks between EU, Russian and Ukrainian officials will also take place on Monday in Brussels.
EU foreign ministers meanwhile will be seeking to avoid displaying in public what some diplomats describe as “very big differences” between the 28 nations over Russia.
To begin with, after President Vladimir Putin’s seemingly more conciliatory remarks last week, “we are not sure whether Putin’s recalibration in recent days was a down-payment on a different stance on Ukraine,” said an EU diplomat close to the matter who asked not to be named.
After pro-Russian rebels claimed a massive turnout in a vote Sunday to split east Ukraine into two independent republics, the EU ministers will discuss the situation with OSCE president Didier Burkhalter who met Putin last week.
The EU so far has imposed asset freezes and visa bans against 48 Russians and Ukrainians for violating or threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
But depending on events on the ground, the ministers may decide to expand the legal criteria to cover cases where an individual or an entity is judged to have undermined Ukraine’s security or actively fostered instability.
They could notably add companies that have benefited from Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“We do think this is expropriation, confiscation, so we think there is some merit in sanctions” being cast wider, one source said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande warned Saturday of “consequences” if presidential elections planned in Ukraine for May 25 failed to be held, further destabilising the country.
But EU member states are divided on further action with some hardliners ready for so-called “Phase 3” economic and financial sanctions while others balk at any such idea, insisting there remains much room for diplomacy.
The hawks include the three Baltic nations, Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, while Italy, Cyprus, Hungary and Bulgaria are at the more conciliatory side of the spectrum.