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EU lawmakers say Russia using coronavirus crisis for political benefit

Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (The Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A group of European Union lawmakers are accusing Moscow of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to try to get sanctions imposed over Russia’s actions in Ukraine lifted, according to a letter seen by RFE/RL.

The letter, dated April 3, says Russian aid provided in support for European countries to tackle the health emergency caused by coronavirus is part of “public relation campaigns” aimed at having the EU sanctions reviewed or lifted.

The letter was signed by 19 members of the European Parliament and addressed to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, and EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell.

The lawmakers said they “seek to rebuff any possibility of reviewing or lifting the EU sanctions against the Russian Federation due to the pandemic.”

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“Russian authorities by pursuing such public relation campaigns as sending poorly applicable humanitarian aid to Italy, as well as misinterpreting the statements by the UN officials, might try to sway the position of the EU and its member states leadership regarding the sanctions,” they added.

A source told RFE/RL the letter was referring to a proposal recently made by Russian President Vladimir Putin that a freeze be placed on economic sanctions to allow countries to better combat the coronavirus epidemic.

Putin told a Group of 20 (G20) video conference on March 26 that restrictive measures imposed on countries should be lifted on humanitarian grounds to “facilitate mutual deliveries of drugs, food, equipment, and technology.”

The lawmakers’ letter says that the EU sanctions, imposed over the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and its subsequent support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, “do not prevent Russia from duly protecting its citizens’ health and contributing to the global fight against the coronavirus.”

It adds that the restrictive measures don’t target trade in medicines and medical equipment.

The document also notes that the sanctions “can only be reviewed if substantial progress” in implementation of the Minsk agreements that sought to put an end to fighting in eastern Ukraine is achieved.

“Russia remains hard to be trusted,” the lawmakers insisted, citing “worrisome statements by Russian doctors accusing Russian government of covering up the coronavirus outbreak in the country” and “the absence of national efforts to flatten the coronavirus curve.”

The document concludes by stating that “as long as Russia denies and hides data about the actual COVID-19 spread in the country, distorts the global tragedy for its political benefits, and continues aggressive actions against the neighboring states and their population, the EU sanctions are among the only available measures to keep Russia accountable and to deter from further violation of the international law and attempts to undermine our European values and democracy.”