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Ahead of a summit of EU leaders later this week, the European Union is scrambling to agree on its next steps to sanction Russia over its war in Ukraine.
After approving and imposing an unprecedented series of sanctions against 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 like Germany are signaling a pause to review the impact of previous sanctions and close loopholes. But others, such as Poland and the Baltic states, are warning of a slowdown in momentum, which Moscow could take as a sign that EU pressure is easing.
“Europe cannot look tired if the war in Ukraine is not over,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters on Monday, arriving in Brussels for a meeting with his EU counterparts. “We cannot tire of imposing sanctions.”
So far, EU governments have been unable to agree on whether their next move should be a high-profile move like a ban on Russian oil imports, despite calls from Warsaw and the Baltics.
At the same time, the EU ministers are trying to make it clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that further sanctions are being prepared and could be imposed at any time.
“We must always be on the lookout for new sanctions and prepare new possible sanctions,” Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said on Monday.
Until recently, even asking a question about sanctions in the EU ran the risk of being seen as a pro-Putin question, an EU diplomat said. But now some countries are openly arguing that the EU needs to reserve some options to respond should Russia commit further incursions.
Not everyone in the EU’s power halls is convinced of this view. It’s “to accept the idea that something more terrible is about to happen,” complained one senior diplomat. “Having something in your pocket as a deterrent clearly doesn’t work.”
“This wait-and-see attitude is not okay,” said the diplomat, and rhetorically asked whether Russia’s actions in Ukraine weren’t enough to make it go further.
“If not now then when?” asked the diplomat.
This is precisely the question EU officials are grappling with.
One trigger for a new wave of Western sanctions has already been publicly identified: the use of chemical – or even nuclear – weapons. Both US and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian have made clear Moscow faces further punishment if it attacks with unconventional weapons.
Other possible triggers are only mentioned behind closed doors.
One of them would be the assassination 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 could be the last time they see him alive – led to a stunning acceleration in Western support for Kyiv in late February.
Another trigger would be a large-scale massacre of civilians or attacks on humanitarian corridors, leading to massive public outrage in the EU.
“We have to start discussing red lines,” Landsbergis said. “Are there any? And what would be the red line for the west, for all of us?”
But even without crossing red lines, EU leaders might still feel they need to show something from their two-day summit, taking place in Brussels on Thursday and Friday this week.
Two EU diplomats said one of the main drivers of the latest sanctions package was that EU governments decided they needed an announcement for the summit of leaders in Versailles earlier this month.
However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell downplayed expectations that new measures will be approved at this week’s assembly.
“Leaders will reconsider what else can be done in the area of sanctions,” Borrell told reporters after Monday’s foreign ministers’ meeting. 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 possible fifth sanctions package, which could be passed at short notice if necessary.
Possible measures could include adding two major Russian banks – Sberbank and Gazprombank – to the list of institutions excluded from the international SWIFT payment system.
EU governments have put forward their own proposals. Poland has called for a total trade ban on Russia. Other countries like Denmark are pushing for stricter access for Russian ships to European ports.
But the big question remains whether the next package would include a cut in Russian energy imports. Brussels sees a ban on oil imports as a first step to target Russian energy revenues.
“Sanctions are about undermining Russia’s ability to fight a war,” said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský called when asked about energy sanctions. “We have to think about this money machine.”
Other EU countries fear that Russia would react to such a step by stopping 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 endanger Hungary’s energy supply,” he said explained.
Some officials are less blunt. However, they warn against going all out 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 how long sanctions could remain in place. With the duration and outcome of the 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 that could hit Europe hard in a cold winter.
Sarah Anne Aarup and Paola Tamma contributed reporting.
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https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-russia-sanctions-gas-oil-moscow-ukraine-war-invasion-oligarchs-imports-putin/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication The EU is struggling to take the next steps on sanctions against Russia – POLITICO