European Union leaders met Wednesday with their counterparts from Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but most of the politicians' attention was devoted to tension at the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sat down with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron as well as European Council President Charles Michel to discuss the build-up of Russian troops near the border to Ukraine and fears of a possible Russian invasion.
They all emphasized dire economic sanctions would be imposed on Moscow should Russia launch incursions in Ukraine. Pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine already reportedly receive support from Moscow.
"The three leaders reaffirmed their commitment to ... negotiations in order to find a lasting solution for the conflict and to preserve Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Macron's office said in a statement.
Zelenskyy urged the EU not to wait for a Russian invasion of Ukraine before imposing new sanctions on Moscow.
"For us, it is important to have sanctions applied before, rather than after, the conflict would happen, because if they were applied after the conflict would happen, this would basically make them meaningless,'' Zelenskyy said, adding that only sanctions applied early could prevent a possible escalation of the conflict.
The Russian Foreign Ministry called on Ukraine and Western governments to implement peace deals negotiated in 2014 and 2015 that include prisoner exchanges, aid and the withdrawal of weapons.
Summit focuses on Ukraine, Russia
Ukraine is currently the primary point of contention between Western leaders and Moscow, with Western leaders threatening sanctions over Russia's build-up of troops along Ukraine's border.
Prior to his departure for the summit in Berlin, Scholz said, "Any violation of territorial integrity will have a high price, and we will speak with one voice here with our European partners and our transatlantic allies."
He also added that he still sought "constructive dialogue" with Russia.
The EU has publicly rejected the notion that Russia has a say in the decisions of sovereign nations or any claims to a sphere of influence. Brussels insists countries in the Eastern Partnership are free to make their own security and economic arrangements.
However, in private AFP reports several senior European diplomats and officials profess a lack of a pathway for Ukraine or Georgia into the EU at present.
Moscow hopes to maintain a large degree of influence over the independent nations that previously were part of the Soviet Union. Russia also hopes to avert any hope they may have of becoming EU and NATO members.
What is the Eastern Partnership?
The Eastern Partnership was established after Russia sent troops into Georiga in 2008 in a move that surprised many in Europe. Since then, it has become an initiative of the EU to engage neighbors to its east and includes Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. The EU offers money, technical assistance and free trade, though not membership. Some countries engaged in the Eastern Partnership very much aspire to belong to the European Union.
Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova would all someday like to join the bloc, seeing it as a gateway to security and prosperity for future generations. Until now, they have only ever received reassurances of support should Russia launch further incursions into their national territories as all three have troops backed by Russia deployed in regions on their soil.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are also present for the summit, though neither nation is seeking to join the EU. The two nations are locked in a conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia knows as Artsakh.
Late last year, war broke out when Azerbaijan successfully opted to retake the disputed land. The conflict left 6,500 dead and Azerbaijan in control of much of the territory.
Belarusian strongman Aleksander Lukashenko stayed away from the summit after he and his allies and security forces were all hit by Western sanctions against his regime for human rights violations following the contested presidential election in August of 2020.
ar/sms (AFP, Reuters, AP)