Invasion of Ukraine European Unity Tested by Russian Aggression

The European Union has developed a long list of possible sanctions against Russia and has already implemented some of them. But the next steps will require unanimity. And it's not clear it will hold.
By Ralf Neukirch in Brussels
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen


Sven Hoppe / dpa

The European Commission worked all night on a sanctions package against Russia. The plan is to first have the ambassadors pore over it, then the General Council, where foreign ministers and Europe ministers of EU member states are represented.

The signal is clear: After the Russian advance into the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, the EU wants to demonstrate to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the West will not accept his aggression. Europe aims to act in a united and determined manner.

It’s uncertain if this message will be received – not only because Putin has shown himself to be unreceptive to such signals in the past, but also because the message is not as clear as the Europeans would like people to believe.

Thus far, it’s true that EU member states have largely been united in their stance toward Russia, in the hope that the West’s threat of severe sanctions would dissuade the country from invading Ukraine.

But that hope died on Monday evening.

What Constitutes an Invasion?

And now, the Europeans have to make a decision: Do they see the move of Russian troops into the regions already controlled by pro-Russian groups as an invasion? At what point should sanctions be put on the table? And which ones?

None of this has been clarified. The European Commission presented its proposals to EU ambassadors on Tuesday. These included sanctions against companies doing business in the separatist areas and targeted measures against those Duma representatives who voted for the recognition of the territories.

This isn’t likely to have much of an impact on Putin, though, especially since the regions have already long been subject to sanctions from the West.

The Commission’s proposed ban on trade in Russian government bonds could have a serious impact, but it is still unclear if the EU states will go that far. So far, the Commission has only verbally presented the idea. Details are to be discussed in the EU capitals.

But what happens if Russian troops cross the border dividing the separatist areas from those controlled by the Ukrainian government?

It has been clear for some time now that it won’t be easy to find a common position. At the Munich Security Conference this past weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked why the West hadn’t yet imposed sanctions on Russia. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, supported this position on Monday ahead of consultations with his counterparts in Brussels. His stance: Ukraine is already under attack by Russia and the EU needs to impose sanctions now.

The foreign ministers of Austria and Ireland publicly disagreed, arguing that punishing Moscow too early would sacrifice leverage.

But not only the timing of the sanctions is controversial. It’s also unclear what those penalties should be. After consultation with member states, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has drawn up an extensive but secretive list. "We can make decisions tomorrow,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced.

It’s unclear if it will really be so simple. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has made clear that he will not support any sanctions affecting the energy sector, while von der Leyen stresses that all options are on the table.

Dependent on Russian Gas

The central question from the European point of view is: How do you impose sanctions on Russia without severely punishing yourself? The EU is dependent on imports of Russian gas, oil and coal. That is especially true of Germany. The German government’s dance around the controversial Nord Stream 2  gas pipeline prior to finally suspending the project on Tuesday offered a clear demonstration for how difficult it is for individual countries to take punitive measures against Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the EU's foreign policy representative, Josep Borrell, in Moscow in February 2021.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the EU's foreign policy representative, Josep Borrell, in Moscow in February 2021.

Foto: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affa / imago images/ITAR-TASS

The poorer residents of EU member states, in particular, have already been hit hard by high energy prices and inflation. Domestically, it isn’t easy to justify punitive measures that affect one’s own population just because of a few areas in Eastern Europe.

Austria and other EU member states have begun demanding compensation from Brussels if sanctions lead to severe economic harm. Germany isn’t alone in rejecting the idea thus far. Still, a compromise will have to be found here too.

And What About Putin?

So far, the EU has personally exempted Vladimir Putin from sanctions. But will it stay that way? After Putin decided to recognize the separatist-controlled "people’s republics” and sent troops into eastern Ukraine, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, pledged that "the EU will impose sanctions on those involved in this illegal action.” It is hard to argue that Putin isn’t one of them.

Nevertheless, on one point, the EU is better positioned than in previous crises: Not only is there general political support for sanctions, the Commission has already laid the legal groundwork for their implementation.

The sanctions must be approved unanimously by the foreign ministers. It’s still unclear if a special meeting of EU foreign ministers will be called to do so – with the goal of sending a clear political signal. After all, the punitive measures can also be adopted in a written procedure.