14 Apr 2014

EU Russia sanctions would be a ‘balance of harm’

The EU has agreed to think of some new names to add to the list of those who face travel bans and asset freezes – and not much more.

There could be a second emergency heads of government summit as soon as next week to consider a major escalation in sanctions against Russia, but the EU leaders have decided to defer such a decision until after the planned Geneva summit on Ukraine.

William Hague (below, centre), on his way in to the foreign ministers’ meeting, said it was plain as day that this was Russian-inspired action. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said: “If it looks like a horse, walks like a horse, it usually is a horse and not a zebra.” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius said: “We shouldn’t focus too much on washing dishes when house is on fire.” Today those arguments were not overwhelming in the room, and the EU decided to up its second phase of sanctions and not much more.


Phase one of the EU’s punishment scale for Russia was the pretty tame suspension of bilateral talks. Phase two was targeted personal sanctions on certain individuals’ assets and travel. Phase three is broader economic sanctions – the European Commission has been asked to look into which would be most effective in hurting Russia and how much they would hurt individual EU member countries, too.

One EU member state diplomat who has seen the document says the European Commission’s phase three paper is “a series of tables with many pages and endless items” that lists different permutations of sanctions in different areas. The idea is that if one country – say, France – takes a hit on suspending its delivery of helicopter carriers to Russia (estimated to be worth EU1.2b), the UK takes a hit on Russian money in the City.

London is said to take the view that a hit on the City is a more serious and recurring hit than a suspension of one (albeit large) arms contract, but we are ready to consider it anyway. The overall headings that the European Commission has looked into are financial, military, trade and energy sanctions. What it is preparing is a menu of options from which the EU leaders could pick on the basis of equal or approximately equal pain.

The 28 member states will have a very tough negotiation to get through if they do advance to phase three. No-one really wants to start self-harming economies that have been through much pain. But few want to let Russia get away with its actions in eastern Ukraine. So we would – if we got there – have measures that would see each of the four categories of sanctions iincluded but it would be one or two boxes within the menu for each heading – “not the whole hog”, as one diplomat put it, but “a balance of harm”.

As for the Geneva summit on Ukraine due to happen on Thursday, I hear that Russia’s pre-meeting contacts have suggested that Russia wants to dictate who comes in the Ukrainian delegation. They’ve even suggested recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over Ukraine as a pre-condition for Thursday’s talks. Whether that is the start of diplomatic manoeuvres that ends with Russia not turning up or just shadow boxing, either way it doesn’t augur well.

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