France and Germany have promised new economic sanctions against Russia in the future, while urging the most hawkish EU member states to drop calls to ban Russian tourists.
“It is equally important that we maintain and expand our sanctions against Russian political, military and economic elites,” Paris and Berlin said in an informal document sent to member states during the talks in Prague on Tuesday August 30 and Wednesday.
“We will also continue to strategically target the Russian economy with new economic and financial sanctions in order to weaken the regime’s financial capacity to wage war,” they said.
They specifically promised “additional sanctions for those involved in annexations” by Russia of pieces of captured Ukrainian territory.
And they hinted at more Western expulsions of Russian spies from Europe.
“We must aim to contain Russia’s malign influence in Europe and beyond, including by disrupting Russian intelligence networks and criminal operations in our countries,” the Franco-German newspaper said.
“A return to ‘business as usual’ with Russia is impossible unless Moscow fundamentally changes course,” he said.
The pledges come after seven previous rounds of EU sanctions, but also amid heated debate over whether to ban Russian tourists from coming to the EU in a bid to make the war unpopular.
EU foreign ministers are closing in on an agreement in Prague to raise the price of Russian tourist visas to €80 from €35, suspending a 15-year-old visa pact.
The Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Finland and Poland had called for a complete ban on Russian tourists.
They were joined on Tuesday by the Dutch, who were sitting on the fence, but whose Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told Dutch broadcaster RTL: “We would like to differentiate between the Russian state and its citizens. But in same time, we see that most of the people who come here are by far wealthy Russians who often have ties to the regime.”
But a diplomat in the hawkish camp admitted that “it will not be possible” to agree a visa blockade at EU level, given the strength of the French and German opposition.
And even though the Franco-German newspaper spoke loosely about future sanctions against Russia, it also took a firm line on the current visa debate.
‘Hearts and Minds’
“We have to fight strategically for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Russian population – at least the segments that are not yet completely estranged from ‘the West’,” he said.
“We must not underestimate the transformative power of the direct experience of living in democratic systems, especially for future generations. Our visa policies must reflect this,” he added.
A blanket visa ban could “trigger unintended gathering around flag effects”, he also said.
The strategy document spoke of a great ideological battle between “liberal democratic values” and “the expansionist and imperialist ideology of Russia’s ‘Russkiy mir’. [Russian world]”.
He also proposed new European ways to counter Russian propaganda, such as “providing Russian-language content to Russian-speaking minorities abroad or funding media literacy courses in Russian that could be delivered by video bloggers on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Telegram channels and Vkontakte”. “.
For his part, a Russian dissident living in London – Vladimir Ashurkov, an associate of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny – endorsed the softer approach.
“A visa ban would alienate potential allies in Russia and push people over the edge closer to [Russian president] Vladimir Putin,” he told EUobserver.
“At the same time, any value of punishment for the Russian regime and those supporting the war is illusory,” he added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said “individual European capitals show an absolute lack of reason” in proposing the tourism ban.
But if Paris and Berlin have their way, there is likely to be a toxic aftertaste in European circles.
“Germany convinced the world that good Germans suffered in World War II. Now they are making the same point about the Russians despite all evidence to the contrary,” an EU source said.
“But why on earth should all of Europe and the West suffer because of Germany’s psychosis?” he said.
EU training mission
Meanwhile, EU defense ministers, also meeting in Prague on Tuesday, agreed to start preparations for an EU military training mission for Ukrainian soldiers in a few months.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell has sounded the alarm over Russia’s destabilizing activities in Bosnia and the “looting” by Russian mercenaries of natural resources in Mali and the Central African Republic, stressing the wider front line in the geopolitical clash with Russia.
But he said the first ship of Ukrainian grain reached Djibouti on Tuesday as part of a Turkish-brokered deal to help prevent people from starving to death in Africa due to the Russian invasion.
“It is a beautiful day here in Prague today, but unfortunately we still have a very serious war in the middle of Europe and it looks like it will take time until it is over,” said said Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist.