The EU will be ready to launch sanctions against Russia within days of a military attack on Ukraine, a senior official has said, as the volatile security crisis enters a critical phase.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday are expected to issue a further warning to Moscow amid simmering tensions over Russia’s buildup of 100,000 troops and heavy weapons along its border with Ukraine.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will brief the ministers by video link on his talks last week with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva. The latest diplomatic effort failed to produce a breakthrough, but both sides agreed to keep talking.
EU sources are pessimistic about the Kremlin climbing down from maximalist demands that would in effect give Russia a sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Ministers meeting on Monday, however, will not discuss specific sanctions. Instead they are expected to echo earlier EU warnings of “massive consequences” without going into specifics.
“If such a very serious development [Russian troops crossing the border] happens, the reaction will be very quick, the reaction will be extremely clear. And again it will be a question of days … not a question of weeks,” a senior EU official said.
The official predicted there would be an “even more remarkable” unity among the bloc’s 27 countries than in 2014 when sweeping economic sanctions against Russia were adopted.
“Yes, there are different sensitivities, but all member states have an acute sense of what is the European Union interest, which is at the end of the day a version of their national interest,” the official said.
Behind the repeated assertions of unity, it is no secret that western allies are divided on how to respond to further Russian military aggression. Joe Biden’s comments that Nato allies would be “having to fight about what to do and not do” in the event of a “minor incursion” of Ukraine – comments that the White House subsequently rowed back on – were seen as undiplomatic, rather than untrue, in Brussels.
In the EU, where sanctions have to be agreed by unanimity, differences are emerging. Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has expressed doubts about cutting off Russian banks from the Swift global payments system, one option under discussion. Poland and the Baltic states, however, think it is a mistake to take anything off the table.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, accused Germany over the weekend of not showing enough support for his country. Writing on Twitter, he expressed disappointment about Germany’s apparent hesitations on Swift, refusal to supply offensive weapons, as well as recent comments from the head of the German navy, who said Ukraine would never get Crimea back.
V-Adm Kay-Achim Schönbach, who also said it was “nonsense” Russia wanted to invade Ukraine, resigned on Saturday, while the German government distanced itself from his views. Writing before his resignation was reported, 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 in the European parliament, where a large majority last month called for sanctions against Russia to encompass exclusion from Swift, which is used in more than 200 countries and territories.
“We should not be limiting the scope of various actions and thereby making it easier for Putin to have options for the violent alternative,” said Michael Gahler, a German MEP from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union party, which is not in power. Gahler, the parliament’s standing rapporteur on Ukraine, said it was “unfortunate” that Germany was not delivering offensive weapons to Ukraine.
Germany’s coalition government refuses to export weapons to conflict zones, in line with longstanding policy rooted in the country’s history.
In the event of war, Gahler also said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline connecting Russia to Germany should not come into operation. The MEP is urging EU officials to look into boosting gas supplies from southern pipelines and liquefied natural gas from the US.
But it is 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 1 February to discuss a planned Russian-built nuclear power station in Hungary, the Sputnik vaccine and Hungary’s gas supply contracts.
While potential sanctions against Russia are a closely guarded secret, it is clear there is a sliding scale of options, with the harshest measures being considered for a full-scale attack. As well as Swift, EU officials are looking at banning the export of key technology to Russia, visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials and oligarchs close to the Kremlin.
Diplomats say a large-scale invasion is likely to make an EU decision simpler, as it would bring the bloc together in a large-scale response, just as the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014 bolstered unity on sweeping economic sanctions.
Diplomats say the EU will face a more complex choice if Russian pursues other forms of aggression, such as cyberwarfare and disinformation, but decides against a military attack. EU officials believe Russia was responsible for the recent cyber-attack on Ukrainian government websites.
Last month EU leaders warned Russia there would be “massive consequences and severe cost” in response to “any further military aggression”. Central and eastern European countries argue that does not means sanctions should only happen if there is a military attack.
Countries will also weigh how sanctions would affect their economic interests. “With sanctions, especially economic sanctions, there is a debate on how harsh they can be because they always come back to you in the EU,” a senior diplomat said. “Individual member states are more generous with the sanctions that hurt them less than others. That is the name of the game a little bit.”