European Union foreign ministers met at a virtual conference earlier this week, as they tried to reassess their options while Russia continues to build up its military presence at the Ukrainian border. The West has struggled to adequately counter recent actions by Moscow, including the treatment of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said ahead of the meeting: “All in all, the relations with Russia are not improving, but the contrary; the tension is increasing on different fronts.
“We call on Russia to withdraw their troops.”
Mr Borrell said Russia had built up a troop presence on the Ukraine border and in annexed Crimea.
He added: “It is more than 150,000 Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian borders and in Crimea. The risk of further escalation is evident.”
The US Pentagon said that the military buildup was greater than the one during 2014, and it was not clear whether it was for training purposes.
Mr Borrell confirmed that for the time being, no sanctions or expulsions of Russian diplomats had been planned but he did not rule them out.
As fears of a major conflict in Ukraine mount, a letter written by former President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to Russian President Vladimir Putin has resurfaced.
In 2018, Mr Juncker came under fire for congratulating the Russian President on his reelection as Britain blamed Moscow for a deadly toxin attack.
Mr Juncker wrote to Putin, pledging to “always be a partner” in improving security cooperation with the Kremlin.
He added in the letter, which he shared on Twitter: “I have always argued that positive relations between the European Union and Russian Federation are crucial to the security of our continent.
“Our common objective should be to re-establish a cooperative pan-European security order.
“I hope that you will use your fourth term in office to pursue this goal.
“I will always be a partner in this endeavour.”
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Mr Juncker published the letter just a day after EU foreign ministers offered Britain “unqualified solidarity” in a dispute with Russia.
At the time, former Prime Minister Theresa May announced her Government believed Moscow was behind the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury using a Soviet-designed nerve agent.
The former head of the Conservative Party group in the European Parliament said that with his letter Mr Juncker was effectively “appeasing a man who poses a clear threat to western security”.
Former MEP Ashley Fox wrote in a statement: “This is a disgraceful letter from Jean-Claude Juncker.
“His failure to mention Russia’s responsibility for a military nerve agent attack on innocent people in my constituency is nauseating.”
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The then-European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt also joined the criticism, saying on Twitter “this is no time for congratulations”.
The former Belgian leader insisted that ties with Russia “must be conditional on respect for the rules based international order”.
Former European Council President Donald Tusk also did not congratulate Putin.
An EU official said: “President Tusk has not sent such a letter and I would not be surprised if he doesn’t send it at all.”