MUNICH (Reuters) - Sweden would be open to providing troops to a U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine if Russia and the West agreed, the country’s defense minister said on Saturday as Western officials consider a force led by non-NATO nations.
More than 10,000 people have been killed since April 2014 in a conflict that pits Ukrainian forces against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Intermittent clashes continue despite a notional ceasefire and diplomatic peace efforts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested a limited U.N. peacekeeping mission to eastern Ukraine, which many in the West see as an opportunity to negotiate a broader U.N. force to restore order, diplomats say.
“If we see the right conditions and if we see that this mission can help ... then we are open to that,” Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told Ukrainian and U.S. officials at the Munich Security Conference when asked about providing troops. “We are not there yet, but it is something positive.”
As a non-NATO country, Sweden was proposed as a possible lead nation in a U.N. force in a report commissioned by former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, now an adviser to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.
The report was presented to officials including the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, on Saturday.
Volker said it was up to Russia to agree to the peacekeepers, but stressed they were not an end in themselves but a way to restore peace and update the 2015 Minsk peace deal.
“We already have the Minsk agreement, which Russia has accepted. The issue is not the deal, the issue is if Russia will uphold it. If Russia will uphold it, then we have the peacekeeping force as a transmission mechanism,” Volker said.
The report proposed a U.N. force of some 20,000 soldiers from non-NATO countries and 4,000 police to help resolve the crisis in Ukraine.
Over 700 unarmed civilian observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) currently operate monitoring missions on the conflict, but these have not reduced tensions.
Separately at Munich, Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the West should ease some economic sanctions imposed on Russia if Kiev and Moscow implemented a lasting ceasefire in eastern Ukraine with the help of peacekeepers.
Gabriel said it was unrealistic to insist on full implementation of the Minsk peace accords before offering some relief from sanctions agreed by the United States and the European Union over Russia’s role in Ukraine.
“I am convinced that if we succeed, that we must begin to reduce sanctions in a stepwise manner,” Gabriel said.
He said he realized his view differed from the official position - that sanctions could only be eased when the Minsk peace accord was fully implemented - but that it was in the world’s interests to break the current impasse.
Gabriel said that, while there were differences with Russia over a U.N. force, it was “one of the few realistic options” for trying to end the violence, and Germany would push for progress on it at the United Nations.
“We need progress urgently because the world is becoming more dangerous,” Gabriel told a meeting also attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Andrew Bolton