Ukraine threatens Council of Europe boycott as Russia rejoins PACE five years after Crimea annexation ban

Roland Oliphant
Russian soldiers seized control of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 - Getty Images Europe

Ukraine threatened to boycott a "discredited" Council of Europe after the body's parliamentary assembly voted to lift a five year restrictions imposed on Russia's delegation over the annexation of Crimea. 

The PACE assembly in Strasbourg voted by 118 to 62 in favour of a motion to limit the sanctions mechanism that had stripped the Russian delegation of voting rights following a late-night debate on Monday. There were ten abstentions. 

The vote followed a plan signed off by foreign ministers of the 47-nation Council of Europe in May and paves the way for the Russian delegation to present its credentials and return to the chamber. 

It is the first time an international body has lifted punitive measures imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine. 

It will allow Russia to participate in the election of a new secretary general for the Council of Europe on Wednesday.

A Ukrainian serviceman on patrol near the frontline in eastern Ukraine, 2017 Credit: Anatolii Stepanov for the Telegraph

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, said he was "disappointed" by the decision and that he had tried to persuade the leaders of France and Germany to reverse course as recently as last week. 

"I was trying to convince Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel that the return of the Russian delegation to PACE is possible only after Russia fulfills the Assembly's fundamental requirements. I regret that our European partners did not listen to us and chose to act differently," he wrote on Facebook. 

Petr Tolstoy, the head of the Russian delegation, accused British and Ukrainian members who tried to block the motion by adding amendments of taking PACE "hostage." 

"Apart from wasting time and testing the nerves of their European colleagues, they achieved nothing," he told Interfax.  

Russian MPs were stripped of the right to vote or sit on committees of the Parliamentary Assembly after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.  

Russia responded by boycotting the assembly, and since 2017 refused to pay its 33-million-euro (£30-million) share of the annual budget. It had threatened to quit altogether if it was prevented from taking part in Wednesday's vote. 

Advocates of restoring Russia's voting rights say it will keep Moscow bound to the European Court of Human Rights, a crucial legal recourse for Russian citizens, including civil society activists, vulnerable to persecution.

The Ukrainian delegation argued that because Russia had made no concessions to Council of Europe demands regarding Crimea and occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, overturning the ban would amount to "surrender."

Russian State Duma member Leonid Slutsky has been nominated for vice speaker of PACE. He is subject to EU sanctions Credit: Sergei Bobylev/TASS via Getty Images

"Our main issue is not the Russian return as such, it is the fact that Russia returned without doing anything. Not a single concession," said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's ambassador to the Council of Europe. "What we have here is not diplomacy, it is a unilateral surrender." 

Delegates from Ukraine and several other countries immediately lodged a challenge to the move on the grounds that six members of the Russian delegation are under European Union sanctions and were elected in a poll that included votes from Crimea, which Europe considers occupied by Russia.  

Russia has nominated one of those members, Duma member Leonid Slutsky, to become one of 20 deputy speakers of PACE.

A vote on the challenge will take place on Wednesday afternoon. 

Volodymyr Ariev, the head of the Ukrainian parliamentary delegation in PACE, said if the challenge failed he and his colleagues would recommend Ukraine's parliament withdraw an invitation to PACE observers to attend snap elections on July 21 and advise Mr Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian ministry of foreign affairs to "revise" the relationship with the council of Europe's inter-governmental bodies. 

 "[The response] will follow the decisions of parliament in Kiev. Probably there will be tabling of a motion to pause or stop participation of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada delegation in PACE," he said.    

The Council of Europe, which is separate from the European Union, has no binding powers but brings together parliamentarians from 47 states to make recommendations on rights and democracy.

Its centrepiece is the European Court of Human Rights. 

The Parliamentary Assembly is made of cross-party delegations of MPs from each member state. 

The Council's Parliamentary Assembly will on Wednesday elect a new secretary general to replace Norway's Thorbjorn Jagland.

Two candidates are in the running: Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders and Croatia's Foreign and European Affairs Minister Marija Pejcinovic Buric.