Eastern Europe fears closer French-Russian ties amid Ukraine crisis


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A Ukrainian soldier on patrol near Troitske village in the Lugansk region A Ukrainian soldier on patrol near Troitske village in the Lugansk region


Several Eastern European countries are becoming increasingly worried that the West may abandon Ukraine in return for Russian backing in Syria, as Paris, Moscow and Washington develop closer ties in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group.
The three Baltic states, which were under Moscow's thumb until 1991, were particularly spooked by Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year and are concerned about the Kremlin's territorial ambitions.
Together with Poland, the Baltic trio -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- are proponents of exercising the utmost firmness regarding the Kremlin. They also fear that the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine will be lumped together.
"These are different crises and we must not link them, we must assess them separately," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told AFP.
"It is unacceptable to talk about some kind of trade, concessions or spheres of influence."
French President Francois Hollande called this week for a broad anti-IS coalition in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, which killed 130 people and were claimed by IS.
On Thursday, Russia said it would be ready to work with such a coalition -- on the condition that its members respect Syria's sovereignty -- a prospect that does not please the Baltics.
"Lithuania will not take part in any new coalition in which Russia will participate or would like to participate," President Dalia Grybauskaite said Friday.
"To this day Russia is occupying the territory of one country and committing acts of war in two countries, Ukraine and Georgia," she added in the western resort town of Palanga after meeting with her Baltic counterparts.
The Latvian foreign ministry for its part said Friday that "the Baltic countries should continue to constantly remind the world about the illegal annexation of Crimea."
"The fight against terrorists and resolving the conflict in Syria should not be at the expense of Ukraine."
Poland's new conservative leaders have so far refrained from commenting, even though the question is taken up time and time again by local media.
"The need to settle the IS issue shouldn't change our position regarding Russia," said lawmaker Marcin Kierwinski from the liberal Civic Platform (PO) opposition party.
"Even if it's not officially on the table, Moscow hopes that if the anti-IS coalition sees the light of day, pressure in the case of Ukraine will lessen and a certain number of countries will say, since we're fighting together, the sanctions shouldn't be renewed," Polish analyst Wojciech Lorenz told AFP.
"That's what we have to fear," added the analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
The opinion of one French expert -- Philippe Migault from the Institute for International and Strategic Relations -- does not bode well for Warsaw.
International relations are marked "by cynicism," he told Poland's PAP news agency, adding that "our priority now is not what's happening in Ukraine. Our priorities are the 130 Paris victims."
In Ukraine, there have been attempts at humour, including a caricature published on the site of the Institute of World Policy, a Ukrainian think tank.
It showed Russian President Vladimir Putin in the form of a helicopter, with missiles aimed at Syria on one side and Ukraine on the other.
The aircraft is in the process of landing on an aircraft carrier in the form of Hollande's face, which bears the name "anti-terrorist coalition".
"To abandon support for Ukraine because of the situation in Syria would be a strategic error on the part of the West," Ukraine's ambassador-at-large Dmytro Kuleba told AFP.
"But the West won't do that, even if somewhat warmer ties (with Moscow) are of course to be expected."
The sanctions that the EU imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea last year are up for review next month.
Diplomatic sources in Brussels say the sanctions will be renewed but it is not yet clear for how long. Talks have yet to begin, the sources add.

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