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EU foreign ministers mull Russia sanctions

December 13, 2021

Brussels is considering new sanctions on Russia to deter it from invading Ukraine. Germany's new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, urged unity but said this should not dilute the strength of the EU's response.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard at a position on the frontline with Russia backed separatists
A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard at a position on the front line with Russia-backed separatistsImage: AFP via Getty Images

The European Union is discussing a possible new round of economic sanctions on Russia as national foreign ministers gathered in Brussels on Monday. 

EU envoys have repeated that strong measures  would be taken if Russia's military launches a full invasion of Ukraine. Tensions have heightened in recent weeks over Russia's growing military presence near the border with Ukraine.

Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said Monday that the EU "stands united in support of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Borrell said that the foreign ministers were all "very clear" during Monday's meeting that "any aggression against Ukraine will come with political consequences and with a high economic cost for Russia."

Immediate sanctions for mercenary firm

After the first few hours of talks, diplomatic sources said the foreign ministers had already decided to impose sanctions on the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary firm.

The measures — which include a travel ban to the EU and a freeze on any assets held in the bloc — apply to the Wagner group itself, 8 individuals including founder Dmitry Utkin, and three oil companies linked to the group in Syria.

"The Wagner Group has recruited, trained and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law,'' the EU said in a statement.

The EU accused those targeted of "serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, or in destabilizing activities in some of the countries they operate in."

The bloc says the group is active in Libya, Syria, Ukraine's Donbass region, and the Central African Republic.

What else is being considered?

The European Union — which imposed economic sanctions on Russia in July 2014 — is considering its options.

EU diplomats have suggested a gradual ramping up of measures that could include travel bans and the freezing of assets for members of Russia's political elite.

The bloc is expected to approve a list of names and companies to be added immediately to existing sanctions regimes.

The sanctioning of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany is also on the table, as well as the further targeting of Russia's state-owned defense and energy companies. Other contracts for natural gas could also be considered.

However, the strongest of the measures are more likely to be invoked if Russia actually invades Ukraine.

"We are in deterrent mode," Borrell told reporters earlier Monday as he arrived for the foreign minister meeting in Brussels.

"In any case, we will send a clear signal that any aggression against Ukraine will have a high cost for Russia," said Borrell, adding that the measures were being studied alongside the US and UK so that coordinated action could be taken.

The 2014 sanctions — over the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula — targeted Russia's energy, banking and defense sector.

Germany's Baerbock: Unity should not mean weakness

Germany's new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, arriving for her first summit with EU counterparts, maintained that the bloc needed a unified response.

However, she said, the need for coherence should not mean a watered-down response.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks to French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks to French counterpart Jean-Yves Le DrianImage: Virginia Mayo/AP Photo/picture alliance

"A strong Europe must not allow itself to be weakened by unanimity on foreign policy issues," Baerbock said. A common European foreign policy, she said, could not be "the sum of the lowest common denominator." 

Baerbock on Sunday said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would not be allowed to operate if the situation in Ukraine worsened significantly.

"In the event of further escalation this gas pipeline could not come into service," Baerbock told German television station ZDF, clarifying earlier threats made by Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The comments came after Baerbock attended a G7 meeting in the English city of Liverpool about tensions with Russia.

Baerbock said the pipeline could not be approved in any case at present because it does not comply with EU energy legislation or meet safety concerns.

rc/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)