EU moves to sanction Russia over aggression towards Ukraine

Sensitive issue of EU gas dependence on Russia hinders clarity on sanctions

The European Union is to move towards sanctioning Russia, as the Kremlin indicated it would recognise the Moscow-backed breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent, in an escalation of pressure on Kyiv.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told journalists he would set out proposed sanctions if Russian president Vladimir Putin were to take the step of recognition.

"If there is annexation, there will be sanctions, and if there is recognition, I will put the sanctions on the table and the ministers will decide," Mr Borrell said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

Shortly afterwards, the Kremlin issued a statement to say that Mr Putin had informed France and Germany that he would acknowledge the self-declared republics, which have been at the centre of conflict between Kyiv and Russian-backed forces since Moscow annexed part of Ukraine in 2014.

Mr Borrell’s comments reflect uncertainty among the 27 over what action by Russia would trigger sanctions.

Some member states have indicated that the trigger point would be an outright invasion of Ukraine, but others have argued that Russia is already damaging the country.

"We do not need to wait for a military attack. I can tell you that Ukraine is already under attack," Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told journalists, citing intimidation, economic pressure and hybrid warfare.

Co-operation

Prior to their meeting the EU ministers held talks with Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba. Mr Kuleba announced afterwards that the EU had agreed to send military trainers to Ukraine, in what he described as a "new element in the co-operation between Ukraine and the European Union".

Kyiv had asked the EU to send a more significant military outreach mission prior to the build-up of Russian troops, according to diplomats. But caution by some towards sending military officers into a potential conflict delayed a response to the request until now.

The 27 also agreed to send cyber defence experts and signed off on financial support for the country, which is suffering deep economic damage due to the invasion force clustered at its borders that has scared away investors and airlines.

Mr Borrell said the EU had reaffirmed its “solidarity with Ukraine”.

“In Ukraine, Russia has created the biggest threat to peace and stability in Europe since the second World War,” he told journalists. “Ukraine’s security is our security.”

The EU has kept the details of potential sanctions confidential. But on Monday Austria's chancellor, Karl Nehammer, said there was "no question" that they would stop the activation of Nord Stream 2, a new pipeline development bypassing Ukraine with a direct supply of gas from Russia to Germany, a project seen by some as giving Moscow political leverage over the EU.

Lithuania has suggested the EU should consider halting energy imports from Russia outright. But Russia supplies an estimated 40 per cent of the EU's gas imports and with high prices already exerting domestic political pressure, Italy is among the countries arguing that sanctions should not cover energy.

On Monday, Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio appealed for diplomacy to continue. "We must avoid a war that would have devastating effects on Europe," he said.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

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