By extending Russian sanctions until mid July 2020, Brussels has once again missed the opportunity to rethink its approach towards Russia.

Sanctions need to be lifted gradually as a reward for de-escalation on the ground and the implementation of some provisions of the Minsk agreements. Only incremental steps, that are followed by easing of certain sanctions, can offer the possibility for both sides to scale back their rhetoric and hardened positions. A  conciliatory approach by the EU should induce de-escalation. Pragmatism is the only way to achieve progress in Ukraine without either side losing face.

With regard to Donbas, consideration should be given to unbundling the sanctions package and linking the gradual lifting of sanctions to the implementation of security provisions. This applies in particular to the ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons , effective monitoring and verification of the ceasefire regime by the OSCE , guaranteeing access for humanitarian aid and the withdrawal of foreign armed groups .

The EU could provide additional incentives for implementation along side the gradual lifting of sanctions, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) resuming its activities in Russia. At the same time, pressure on the Ukrainian side would have to be increased considerably in order for it to meet its security provisions. The EU would have to make it more clear to Ukraine than it has in the past that it should also expect negative consequences if it were to contravene these provisions. The EU should urge the Ukrainian leadership to set up a coherent reconstruction program for the destroyed parts of the Donbas, and also support it generously. In addition, Kiev urgently needs to abandon its current policy of socio-economically isolating separatist-controlled areas. This last point is particularly important.

From a Russian perspective and from the perspective of critics of moderate sanctions in the EU, the proposed flexibility would make an end to the sanctions more tangible and this end would no longer depend on Kiev implementing the political provisions. At the same time, Ukraine’s comprehensible need for greater security could be taken into account before political obligations are met. The Minsk negotiations and the accompanying international process (Normandy format) should certainly continue and be used to discuss further political steps. The EU should proactively demonstrate its willingness to be more flexible in its approach.


The presidents of Ukraine and Russia agreed on 9 December to revive the peace process on the bloody separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and exchange all their prisoners, but they failed to resolve crucial issues such as a timeline on local elections and control of the borders in the rebel-held region.

There are disagreements, especially on timeline and next steps.

Russia emphasized that Ukraine should quickly extend a law giving wide autonomy to the rebel-held regions in line with the Minsk agreement and also approve a legislation granting amnesty to the rebels. In addition to the prisoner swap, agreement was reached to continue pulling back troops in other areas in the east, clear mines there and remove fortifications.

The Minsk deal puts forth that Ukraine can regain control over the border with Russia in the separatist-held regions only after they are granted a broad self-rule and hold local elections. In particular, it stipulates that the Ukrainian law should allow municipal authorities in the east to appoint judges and prosecutors in the region and form local police. It notes that the law should also provide for an amnesty for those who took part in the fighting.

Zelenskiy wants to tweak the timeline laid out in the accord, which calls for Ukraine to be able to regain control of its border with Russia only after local elections are held in the separatist regions and the regions receive autonomous status. He says Ukraine must get control of its border first before local elections are held, but the Kremlin insists that’s not an option.

Ukraine and Russia struck a prisoner exchange deal in September and agreed on a troop and heavy weapons pullback from two locations in eastern Ukraine. Russia has also released three Ukrainian navy ships that were seized a year ago.

Russia denies providing troops and weapons to help the separatists but has maintained political support and sent aid. It argues that people in eastern Ukraine feel stronger cultural and linguistic ties with Russia than with Western-leaning Kyiv.

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