EIt is not easy to agree on possible sanctions against Russia, either within the European Union or between it and the United States. US President Joe Biden provided a glimpse last week when he said, tongue-in-cheek, that if Russia had only “small intrusions” into Ukraine, the appropriate response would be debatable, while Moscow would face high costs if it invaded.
This was certainly not meant for the public; the White House has since spent much time de-escalating the comment. The internal debate continued on Monday. The EU foreign ministers discussed in Brussels, Ukraine was their most important topic. In the afternoon, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined in via video from Washington.
On the European side, the EU Commission has taken over the coordination of sanctions. On the one hand, this is unusual, because normally the Council and the Member States have their hats on when it comes to this issue. They decide on joint measures, which are drawn up by the European External Action Service, which acts “alongside” the Commission. On the other hand, it is now mainly about economic coercive measures; the Commission is more competent for that. Politically, Ursula von der Leyen took the lead when she presented a package of options at the European Council in December.
Moscow is to be left in the dark
Almost nothing was known about its contents. The heads of government deliberated among themselves, without any other officials; before that they had to hand in their mobile phones. The Commission is now holding in-depth talks with individual states – especially those that would be most affected by the effects. In addition, groups of states coordinate among themselves, all informally. The responsible working groups of the Council, on the other hand, have not yet been involved. “What goes in there becomes public immediately,” says a diplomat. On the other hand, it is part of the strategy to leave Moscow in the dark about exactly what to expect. If the worst comes to the worst, you will be able to make a decision very quickly. A senior EU official recalled that in September 2014 it took the Union just three days to step up its coercive measures. At the time, pro-Russian separatists had shelled the city of Mariupol with artillery.
However, the states have not yet agreed on how far they want to go. Above all, this concerns the question of whether Russian banks should be cut off from international payment transactions that run through the service provider Swift. Washington is reportedly urging it; the drastic measure should also be on the list of the EU Commission. “We are talking about potentially the most important change in the security situation in Europe since the end of the Cold War,” says the senior EU official. “Our response will be up to the challenge.”
The federal government sees things differently. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in Brussels “that the hardest stick is not always the smartest sword”. Financial measures must be reviewed “so that they have the greatest impact” – on Russia, that is, not on the member states. Of all EU countries, Germany has the most extensive economic relations with Russia. As a result, German companies would also have to bear the greatest burden if Russia could no longer service loans and pay bills. Natural gas deliveries would also be affected. In addition, there is a danger, according to another argument from the German side, that Swift would be permanently weakened because Russia would switch to alternatives.