The European Union will be ready to launch sanctions against Russia “within days” of a military attack on Ukraine, a senior official has said, as the explosive security crisis enters a critical new phase.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday are expected to issue a fresh warning to Moscow, amid simmering tensions over Russia’s buildup of 100,000 troops and heavy weapons along its border with Russia. Ukraine.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will brief ministers via video link on his talks last week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. The latest diplomatic effort failed to produce a breakthrough, but both sides agreed to keep talking.
European sources are pessimistic that the Kremlin is backing away from maximalist demands that would effectively give Russia a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Ministers meeting on Monday will not discuss specific sanctions, however.
Instead, they are expected to echo earlier EU warnings of “massive consequences” without going into specifics.
“If such a serious development [Russian troops crossing the border] happens the reaction will be very fast, the reaction will be extremely clear. And again, it will be a matter of days… not a matter of weeks,” a senior EU official said. The official predicted there would be “even more remarkable” unity among the 27 countries in the bloc than in 2014, when sweeping economic sanctions against Russia were passed.
“Yes, there are different sensitivities, but all member states have a strong sense of what the interest of the European Union is, which is ultimately a version of their national interest,” the official said. .
Behind repeated affirmations of unity, it’s no secret that Western allies are divided on how to respond to renewed Russian military aggression. US President Joe Biden’s comments that NATO allies ‘should be fighting over what to do and what not to do’ in the event of a ‘minor incursion’ into Ukraine – comments the White House is scolding over is then turned down – were seen as undiplomatic, rather than bogus, in Brussels.
Within the EU, where sanctions must be decided unanimously, differences appear. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has expressed doubts about cutting off Russian banks from the Swift global payment system, an option currently being discussed. Poland and the Baltic States, however, believe it is a mistake to take anything off the table.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Germany over the weekend of not showing enough support for his country. Writing on Twitter, he expressed disappointment with Germany’s apparent hesitation over Swift, refusal to provide offensive weapons, as well as recent comments from the German navy chief, who said Ukraine would not recover. never Crimea.
Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, who also said it was “nonsense” that Russia wanted to invade Ukraine, resigned on Saturday, while the German government distanced itself from his views. Writing before his resignation was announced, Kuleba said: “German partners must stop such words and actions to undermine unity and encourage Vladimir Putin to a new attack on Ukraine.”
Kuleba’s criticism of Germany’s coalition government is shared by many members of the European Parliament, where a large majority last month called for sanctions against Russia to encompass the exclusion of Swift, who is used in more than 200 countries and territories.
“We should not limit the scope of various actions and thus make it easier for Putin to have options for the violent alternative,” said Michael Gahler, a German MEP from the center-right Christian Democratic Union party, which is not in power. . Gahler, the parliament’s permanent rapporteur on Ukraine, said it was “unfortunate” that Germany did not deliver offensive weapons to Ukraine.
Germany’s coalition government refuses to export arms to conflict zones, in accordance with a long-standing policy rooted in the country’s history.
In the event of war, Gahler also said that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany should not come into service. The MEP urges European officials to consider increasing gas supplies from southern pipelines and liquefied natural gas from the United States.
But it’s not just Germany that has raised questions about EU unity. Alarm bells were set off when it was announced last week that Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would meet Putin on February 1 to discuss a proposed Russian-built nuclear power plant in Hungary, the Sputnik vaccine and gas supply contracts from Hungary.
Although potential sanctions against Russia are a closely guarded secret, it is clear that there is a sliding scale of options, with the harshest measures being considered for a full-scale attack. Besides Swift, EU officials are considering export bans on key technologies to Russia, visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials and oligarchs close to the Kremlin.
Diplomats say a full-scale invasion is likely to simplify an EU decision, as it would bring the bloc together in a large-scale response, just as the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014 strengthened unity on sweeping economic sanctions.
Diplomats say the EU will face a more complex choice if Russia pursues other forms of aggression, such as cyber warfare and disinformation, but decides not to attack militarily. EU officials believe Russia is responsible for the recent cyberattack on Ukrainian government websites.
Last month, EU leaders warned Russia that there would be “massive consequences and significant costs” in response to “any further military aggression”. Central and Eastern European countries argue that this does not mean that sanctions should only be applied in the event of a military attack.
Countries will also assess how the sanctions affect their economic interests. “With sanctions, especially economic sanctions, there is a debate about how severe they are because they always come back to you in the EU,” a senior diplomat said. “Individual member states are more generous with sanctions that hurt them less than others. It’s kind of the name of the game.”