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Amid warnings to Russia over feared Ukraine attack, E.U. struggles over how tough to set sanctions

Josep Borrell, vice president of the European Commission, speaks to journalists in Brussels on Dec. 16, 2021. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Bloomberg News)

BRUSSELS — E.U. leaders are warning Russia that any military move into Ukraine will come at a high cost, with new sanctions from Moscow’s critical trading partner.

The stern messages to Russia, however, are the easy part.

It’s much more challenging for the European Union’s 27 members to agree on potential economic and diplomatic blows against Russia over any military action in Ukraine, which lost Crimea to a Russian invasion in 2014 and has fought a nearly eight-year war against Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Since spring, Russia has significantly boosted its forces along the Ukrainian border.

All E.U. members have to agree on sanctions but have long been divided on how to handle relations with Russia. Countries including Poland and Sweden have criticized moves to maintain diplomatic contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin. France and Germany, however, have held direct talks with Putin. Hungary’s president, Viktor Orban, is often considered an ally of Putin.

“Of course we must not be naïve, but we should not reject a dialogue at the outset,” French President Emmanuel Macron said early Friday morning.

And then there’s the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline to bring natural gas from Russia to Germany — and bypass current routes through Ukraine. Opposition to the pipeline is widespread in Europe, and some E.U. leaders argue that it is contradictory to sanction Russia while also forming business deals with it. But Germany — one of the European Union’s most-powerful members — wants the pipeline, and E.U. officials haven’t yet indicated if they are considering Nord Stream as part of potential sanctions.

Six ways Russia views Ukraine — and why each should worry the West

Still, E.U. leaders appear united that they need to spell out the possible fallout to Russia.

“Any aggressive action will be met with a high political and economic cost,” the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Thursday ahead of a meeting with European leaders. Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said it would be a “serious mistake to believe that violating the borders of a European country would remain without consequences.”

“We are convinced that Russia is actually preparing for the all-out war against Ukraine,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, adding that “an unprecedented attack on a country that shows a Western direction” would warrant an “unprecedented” response.

Russia insists it has no plans to send forces over the border. But Putin strongly opposes Ukraine’s deepening ties with the West and called Ukraine’s dream of NATO membership a “red line.”

The Biden administration warned that it would be willing to impose more severe economic sanctions against Russia than the United States did in 2014 and said the pipeline could be strong leverage in negotiations.

E.U. officials have so far not revealed details about any sanctions they are considering, but many analysts and diplomats say that the bloc is better positioned to take tougher actions than in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Among the reasons: Since 2014, Ukraine has bolstered its alliances with the West, creating a more fervent consensus within the European Union that Ukraine must be protected from Russia.

G-7 warns of 'massive consequences' if Russia invades Ukraine

“I think all of us are willing to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to the red line,” a senior European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the internal deliberations, said Wednesday.

“This time, yes,” Borrell told reporters Thursday, when asked if he thought European countries would agree on sanctions.

When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the European Union responded with sanctions largely aimed at preventing 44 businesses and organizations and nearly 200 people from borrowing money from European banks. The sanctions prevented these people from traveling into the European Union.

After criticism for limited sanctions, the European Union later ramped up the severity of the penalties, which have been renewed multiple times and are still in place.

The European Union’s close economic ties to Russia positions the bloc to deliver potentially more-consequential sanctions than the United States. But that also means that sanctions could hit its own coffers.

Edward Hunter Christie, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said the sanctions stemming from the Crimea invasion barely touched Russia’s energy industry, which the European countries rely on.

Kyiv is keeping calm and carrying on even as Russia boosts pressure on Ukraine

Yet the International Monetary Fund estimated in 2015 that Western sanctions reduced Russia’s gross domestic product by more than 1 percent. A subsequent IMF study determined that sanctions slowed the country’s economic growth since then. Those sanctions arrived around the same time as oil prices tanked, delivering Russia a much bigger blow to its economy.

“The [current] sanctions are strong enough that you are going to notice it, but it’s not strong enough that you are going to feel that countries are trying to demolish you,” said Christie, who was a defense economist for NATO in 2014. “And that was deliberate. ”

Francesco Giumelli, associate professor of international relations at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen, said that the European Union will have to think of different types of sanctions this time, another potential challenge. When Russians were blocked from accessing European and American banks, many then turned to China.

Giumelli, whose research focuses on international sanctions, warned that if Russia is set on invading Ukraine, economic sanctions alone would be hard to deter them.

Putin keeps Washington guessing as U.S. huddles with allies to prevent Ukraine invasion

So far, leaders appear divided on whether the Nord Stream 2 pipeline should be included in sanctions.

“It is important to keep energy policy out of the conflict,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Thursday.

Gwendolyn Sasse, senior fellow focusing on Eastern Europe at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said this latest crisis in Russia gives the European Union an opportunity to display its strength during a crisis.

“The urgency is much greater. It’s such a massive buildup. Nothing is covert,” Sasse said. “What’s at stake is whether the E.U. can act and is seen as a strong and coherent foreign policy actor if something happens.”

Read more:

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