Pressure of EU foreign ministers to act on Russia at Brussels meeting

EU Foreign Affairs Council will turn to so-called Phase Three sanctions on certain sectors of the Russian economy

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is seeking to escalate pressure on Russia. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is seeking to escalate pressure on Russia. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA


Today’s meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels may have been scheduled for months, but rarely has a gathering of the bloc’s 28 foreign policy chiefs been more closely watched.

The European Union is under increasing pressure to toughen its response to Russia after the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine.

EU ambassadors met yesterday evening in Brussels ahead of today’s Foreign Affairs Council. On the agenda was a discussion about individuals to be targeted by the EU’s sanction list which was expanded last week.

But the focus has turned to so-called Phase Three sanctions – economic restrictions that would be applied to certain sectors of the Russian economy – in contrast to Phase Two sanctions which impose asset-freezes and travel bans on individuals and entities.

Unsurprisingly, the pressure to ratchet-up economic action against Russia has intensified in recent days.

Before the weekend EU officials stressed that the response of Russian president Vladimir Putin to the MH17 crash would be crucial over subsequent days.

Mr Putin’s public silence, and propaganda-laden coverage of the incident in the Russian media, suggests his response has been insufficient.

Hardened stance

Within the EU there are signs that some of the erstwhile advocates of a more conciliatory approach to Russia are hardening their stance, though strong divisions remain.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Monday that the EU would have to “increase the pressure” on Russia following the difficulties faced by investigators in gaining access to the crash site, while Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said “all political, economic and financial options” are on the table if access remains inadequate.

Britain, home to many Russian oligarchs, also said it is prepared to take the financial hit that would be an outcome of economic sanctions.

To critics of the EU’s foreign policy, the killing of more than 200 EU citizens should be enough of a trigger to instigate Phase Three sanctions after months of debate on what would justify tougher measures.

But the EU is limited in what it can do today.

Any decision to move to Phase Three sanctions would need to be taken at heads of state level, necessitating a summit of EU leaders, though foreign ministers will discuss sanctions today.

This is likely to focus on what form those sanctions would take.

The US has already imposed tougher measures than the EU, last week announcing sanctions on two Russian energy companies and banks, though the restrictions are limited only to US debt and equity financing for the companies.

Among the main areas likely to be targeted by the EU is military exports. British prime minister David Cameron indicated that one option could be sanctions on the sale of industrial goods into Russia that can be co-opted for defence purposes.

While Mr Cameron said no EU country should sell military equipment to Russia, Number 10 clarified that this referred to future sales.

France has maintained its commitment to selling two Mistral war ships to Russia, but whether it can continue to defend the contract is highly questionable.

Energy sanctions will be much trickier to implement – large member states such as Germany and Italy are highly dependent on Russian gas, while some smaller EU countries are more than 90 per cent dependent on Russia for energy.

Whether Thursday’s air crash is, in the words of US president Barack Obama, the “wake-up call” for the EU remains to be seen.