EU wrestles with next steps on Russia sanctions – POLITICO

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Ahead of a summit of European leaders later this week, the European Union is struggling to agree on its next steps to sanction Russia for its war in Ukraine.

After approving and imposing an unprecedented series of sanctions on Moscow in just weeks, EU officials are now grappling with two interrelated questions: what should they target next? And what should be the trigger?

Some countries, such as Germany, are signaling support for a pause, to review the effect of the sanctions imposed so far and fill in the loopholes. But others, like Poland and the Baltic states, warn of a faltering that could be perceived by Moscow as a sign of a relaxation of pressure from the EU.

“Europe cannot give the impression of fatigue while the war in Ukraine is not over,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters on Monday, arriving for a meeting with his European counterparts. in Brussels. “We can’t get enough of imposing sanctions.”

So far, EU governments have been unable to agree on whether their next step should be a high-profile decision such as a ban on Russian oil imports, despite the calls to do so from Warsaw and the Baltic countries.

At the same time, EU ministers are trying to impress on Russian President Vladimir Putin that further sanctions are being prepared and could be imposed at any time.

“We always have to look to new sanctions and prepare for possible new sanctions,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said on Monday.

Until recent days, even asking a question about sanctions in the EU “risked being seen as a pro-Putin question”, an EU diplomat said. But now some countries are openly arguing that the EU must keep certain options in reserve, to be able to react if Russia commits further outrages.

Not everyone in the EU’s corridors of power is convinced by this view. It is “to accept the idea that something more terrible is going to happen”, complained a senior diplomat. “Keeping something in the pocket as a deterrent clearly doesn’t work.”

“This wait-and-see approach is not acceptable,” the diplomat said, asking rhetorically whether Russia’s actions in Ukraine weren’t already enough to go further.

“If not now, then when?” asked the diplomat.

This is precisely the question that EU officials are wrestling with.

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One of the triggers for a new wave of Western sanctions has already been publicly announced: the use of chemical or even nuclear weapons. US and French foreign ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian have made it clear that Moscow will face new sanctions if it attacks with unconventional weapons.

Other potential triggers are only mentioned behind closed doors.

One would be the murder of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His personal plea for help to EU leaders last month – when he warned them in a video call that this might be the last time they saw him alive – led to a startling acceleration of the Western support in kyiv at the end of February.

Another trigger would be a large-scale massacre of civilians or attacks on humanitarian corridors, which would cause massive public outrage in the EU.

“We have to start discussing red lines,” Landsbergis said. “Is there? And what would be the red line for the West, for all of us?

However, even without the crossing of red lines, EU leaders may still feel the need to have something to show at their two-day summit, which takes place in Brussels on Thursday and Friday this week.

Two EU diplomats said a key driver of the latest sanctions package was that EU governments decided they needed an announcement for the leaders’ summit in Versailles earlier this month .

However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell played down expectations of further measures approved at this week’s meeting.

“Leaders will look again at what can be done in the area of ​​sanctions,” Borrell told reporters after Monday’s meeting of foreign ministers. But he added: “I don’t think there will be a formal decision on a new sanctions package.”

As governments debate their next steps, the European Commission is preparing a potential fifth sanctions package that could be approved in the short term if necessary.

Possible steps

Possible measures could include adding two major Russian banks – Sberbank and Gazprombank – to the list of banned institutions in the international payment system SWIFT.

EU governments have come forward with their own proposals. Poland has called for a total trade ban against Russia. Other countries, such as Denmark, are pushing for stricter access for Russian vessels to European ports.

But the big question remains whether the next package would include cutting Russian energy imports. Brussels is considering an oil import ban as a first step in targeting Russian energy revenues.

“Sanctions are aimed at undermining Russia’s ability to wage a war,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský said when asked about the energy sanctions. “We have to think about this slot machine.”

Other EU countries fear that Russia will respond to such a measure by cutting off gas supplies to the EU.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó threatened on Monday to block energy-related sanctions. “We will not support sanctions that could pose a risk to Hungary’s energy supply,” he said.

Some managers are less direct. But they caution against going all-in too soon and urge caution to ensure further sanctions are legally watertight.

“Substance and speed must go hand in hand,” said another EU diplomat.

Another factor clouding EU decision-making is the question of how long sanctions could stay in place. With the duration and outcome of war highly uncertain, governments must consider that any sanctions they impose now could be in place for years. This is a particularly problematic issue when it comes to energy sanctions, which could weigh heavily on Europe in a cold winter.

Sarah Anne Aarup and Paola Tamma contributed reporting.

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