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Allies still unsure about when to trigger Russia sanctions

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The EU, U.S. and other Western allies are adamant that Russia will face heavy sanctions if it attacks Ukraine — but there is widespread uncertainty over what would constitute an attack short of a full-scale invasion, diplomats and officials said Tuesday.

Washington has been consulting with European counterparts on a daily basis in developing the sanctions package, the details of which are extremely well-guarded — partly to keep Moscow guessing but also to prevent disagreements among allies over specific measures.

But while Western governments insist that there is ironclad unity about penalizing Russia in the event of an attack, the lack of consensus on when sanctions would be triggered leaves a cloud of uncertainty about how quickly and forcefully Moscow will feel the response.

“There now needs to be quite a lot of work about triggering [the sanctions],” a senior EU official said on Tuesday. “This is particularly important when you are dealing with a scenario that is multi-faceted.”

Establishing clear parameters for imposing sanctions on Russia, which diplomats say would be the most hard-hitting penalties ever imposed, is especially challenging given Russia’s extensive capabilities to carry out military or hybrid strikes, including cyberattacks. Many analysts say that a conventional land invasion is only one option, and perhaps not the most likely scenario.

In 2014, Russia sent troops without insignia to invade Crimea, and it has long denied any role in the separatist war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, though the presence of Russian forces and weapons, as well as casualties of Russian troops, have been well-documented by journalists and intelligence analysts.

The question of when to trigger sanctions was left unresolved Monday at a meeting in Brussels of EU foreign ministers and, diplomats said, there was also no clear consensus during a conference call of leaders led by U.S. President Joe Biden later in the day.

“So far as I know, the trigger was not concretely defined,” a senior Central European diplomat said, adding that “of course” a full invasion would mean sanctions and they would “be discussed” if Russia launched a “hybrid” attack.

An EU diplomat said: “I don’t think there is real consensus yet, because those discussions are still ongoing.”

This diplomat added, “There isn’t a common agreed position on what would trigger sanctions because the conversation hasn’t gotten there yet, same goes for what sanctions would look like.”

Some officials at the center of the sanctions development process seem to be hoping that an attack by Russia on Ukraine would create such a sense of urgency that Western allies would put aside any differences to quickly approve the package of penalties.

But among the 27 EU countries, the potential economic damage from imposing such sanctions stands to vary quite widely, creating a real possibility for disputes. Countries like Germany are relatively more dependent on Russian natural gas, for example, while others like Luxembourg or Austria would feel a greater hit from sanctions on banks and financial institutions.

The senior EU official said there was some hope in Brussels that EU capitals would respond with the same swift unity that they showed after Belarus forced down a passenger plane to arrest a political opposition figure who was on board. The incident happened to occur the day before a European Council summit, providing instant political momentum for leaders to reach quick agreement.

Even without releasing precise details about the sanctions, there have been disagreements, with some German officials, for instance, expressing opposition to the idea of cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international financial payments system. And other fissures have emerged about how best to deal with military tensions on the Ukrainian border. Some EU officials have bristled at the U.S. and U.K. for ordering partial evacuations of diplomatic personnel or their families, saying that the departures were premature and risked creating a sense of panic.

The call organized by Biden on Monday included European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Polish President Andrzej Duda and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But while the U.S. and U.K. may impose their own measures, all 27 EU member countries must agree for Brussels to take action.

During a briefing on Tuesday, senior Biden administration officials said that in addition to traditional financial sanctions, the U.S. was “prepared to impose novel export controls that would deal Putin a weak strategic hand over the medium term.”

“So, much like financial sanctions which restrict foreign capital, export controls deny something to Russia that it needs and can’t easily replace from anywhere else,” a senior official said. “In the case of export controls, what we’re talking about are sophisticated technologies that we design and produce that are essential inputs to Russia’s strategic ambitions. So, you can think of these export controls as trade restrictions in the service of broader U.S. national security interests. We use them to prohibit the export of products from the U.S. to Russia and, potentially, certain foreign-made products that fall under U.S. export regulations.”

Russia would feel pressure because of “the global dominance of U.S.-origin software, technology, and tooling,” the senior official said, adding: “The export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard. And it would impair areas that are of importance to him, whether it’s in artificial intelligence or quantum computing, or defense, or aerospace, or other key sectors.”

A third EU diplomat said officials were confident that ultimately there would be consensus on which sanctions to impose. Still, the third diplomat acknowledged concern about fallout from sanctions. “There are of course worries about consequences,” the third diplomat said. “But a common stance is important to all member states.

The senior U.S. official said that Washington is preparing contingency plans to help European countries in the event that Russia retaliates by cutting natural gas supplies. Those contingency plans would include extra shipments of liquified natural gas.

But even with such measures in place, the question of precisely how to define a Russian attack remained unresolved.

“I haven’t seen or heard such a determination,” the third diplomat said. “The EU should be prepared for different kinds of hybrid threats and scenarios. To define or decide when those would trigger sanctions or not, that is another thing.”

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