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Ukraine urges Europe to impose sanctions on Russia now to deter Kremlin moves

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba speaks to the press following the E.U. Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels on Feb. 21. (Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BRUSSELS — European Union sanctions on Russia will ​​be robust and comprehensive, European officials say. They will be “massive.” The “mother of all sanctions,” even.

But despite increasingly urgent calls for action and the deteriorating situation on the ground, the E.U.’s sanctions package will not be coming just yet — much to Ukraine’s disappointment.

The tension over when and how to levy sanctions was on full display on Monday in Brussels, where Ukraine’s foreign minister met with European counterparts, urging them to move ahead right away rather than wait for the next Kremlin move.

“We believe there are good and legitimate reasons to impose at least some of the sanctions now to demonstrate that the European Union is not only talking the talk about sanctions but walking the walk,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, told reporters Monday.

His remark comes two days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed the West for inaction, accusing leaders of “appeasement” and warning that sanctions issued after further Russian aggression would be too late.

“We don’t need your sanctions after the bombardment will happen and after our country will be fired at, or after we will have no borders and after we will have no economy or part of our country will be occupied,” he said in an interview with CNN from Munich. “Why would we need those sanctions then?”

E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday morning that Europe is ready to levy sanctions but will wait for the right moment. At an evening news conference, he suggested that the bloc might move ahead if Russia recognized the independence of two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.

Not long after, news broke that Russian President Vladimir Putin said he will indeed recognize the regions, effectively throwing the issue back to the E.U.

The question of exactly when and how to act remains contentious on both sides of the Atlantic.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the United States and its European allies have built a “massive” sanctions package to deter Moscow but would not “lay out the specifics,” because that might give Russia a chance to plan accordingly.

“As soon as you trigger them, that deterrent is gone,” Blinken said in an interview with CNN on Sunday.

“Until the tanks are actually moving, the planes are actually flying, the bombs are actually dropping,” he continued, “we’re going to do everything we can with diplomacy and with deterrence and dissuasion to get President Putin to reverse the decision that we believe he’s made.”

Voices within the E.U. argue that it would be foolish to wait for Putin to launch a full-scale invasion to levy sanctions.

“We do not need to wait for an attack, for a military attack,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Monday ahead of meetings in Brussels.

Landsbergis cited cyberattacks, the pressure on the Ukrainian economy and the news that Russian troops may not, in fact, leave Belarus after military exercises as evidence that an attack of sorts is already underway.

“Russia has a huge arsenal of things it can deploy before actual military attack,” he said.

He also raised questions about whether the E.U. was united on some of the thorniest sanctions issues, specifically whether Russia’s energy sector, which is a major supplier in parts of Europe, will be excluded.

Over the weekend, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNBC that “everything,” including energy, is still on the table. However, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has said that Russia’s energy sector should be excluded from E.U. sanctions.

“Some countries like Italy are afraid of energy sanctions and want to exclude energy from the package,” Landsbergis said. “Well, I think Putin is not drawing any red lines for his attack. Therefore I don’t think that we should be drawing any red lines for our sanctions.”

Some E.U. countries hope to target Russia’s financial, tech and trade sectors — though it is unclear where those talks stand.

For now, Europe seems to be hoping that keeping things vague will buy a bit more time for diplomacy.

“I think ministers have made a clear decision not to put the details of that on the table at this stage, and I think that is the right decision,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Monday. “The main focus needs to be on preventing war rather than how we respond to it.”

Jeppe Kofod, Denmark’s foreign minister, said there is still hope that Russia will come to the table. “If they don’t,” he said, Europe stands ready to impose “the most devastating sanctions, economically, politically, that Russia has ever seen.”