Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine on Monday (21 February), is likely to force the EU to fast-track a decision to impose extensive sanctions on Moscow.
As EU foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels, Putin presided over a carefully stage-managed meeting of his powerful national security council, where senior administration officials called for Moscow to recognise the independence of the two rebel-held areas of Ukraine.
“Those who took the path of violence, bloodshed and lawlessness did not recognise and don’t recognise any other solution to the Donbas problem besides the military,” Putin said in a televised speech after rambling on for roughly an hour.
“Therefore, I believe it is necessary to take a long-overdue decision to immediately recognise the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic,” he said,
Kyiv can now either accept the loss of a huge chunk of territory or risk being drawn further into a military escalation with its vastly more powerful neighbour, who has amassed up to 190,000 troops at its borders, according to Western officials.
In recent days, Western officials have warned that separatist leaders had undertaken ‘false flag’ operations, apparently seeking to create a pretext for Russian military intervention.
Separatist authorities also initiated a wide-scale evacuation of civilians, claiming there would be an imminent attack by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has repeatedly denied those charges and said his forces are under orders to show restraint.
Sanctions, but when?
The Russian move puts the EU on the spot to follow through with its sanctions threats.
Before Putin’s announcement, Borrell told reporters in the morning that if needed he would convene an extraordinary EU foreign affairs ministers meeting to “present the sanctions at the right moment”, which could then receive the political green light and be approved in a written procedure.
One of the scenarios considered was whether member states would decide sanctions on Russia should Moscow recognise the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine, according to an EU diplomat.
“If there is annexation, there will be sanctions, and if there is a recognition I will put the sanctions on the table and the ministers will decide,” Borrell told reporters after the nearly ten-hour-long meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Brussels.
“We call on President Putin to respect international law (…) We are ready to react with a strong united front in case he should decide” to ignore these calls,” Borrell told reporters.
Russia’s aggressive move de-facto nullified the 2015 Minsk peace accords, aimed at resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and torpedoed a last-minute Western bid for a summit to avert war.
Over the past months, the EU has been busy drawing up a list of sanctions in retaliation for any military aggression from Moscow without disclosing too many details on its contents, while the threshold for triggering those punitive measures remained to be determined.
According to several EU diplomats, there was a ‘big majority’ on Monday for ‘clear and fast sanctions’, while only a handful remained on the cautious side to ‘wait and see what Putin will do’.
In a statement in reaction to the recognition, the EU’s leadership said the bloc would react with sanctions “against those involved in this illegal act” of recognising Donetsk and Luhansk.
This would, however, would suggest individual, targeted sanctions rather than moving forward with the sanctions ‘package’ as such, which is likely not to be well-received by fierce proponents of a stronger response towards Moscow.
Ukraine, Eastern Europeans push
The US and European allies have said any attack would trigger severe sanctions against Moscow, but Kyiv wants these to be imposed now, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Brussels earlier on Monday.
“We expect decisions,” Kuleba told reporters in the morning.
“We believe that there are good and legitimate reasons to impose at least some sanctions now to demonstrate that the EU is not only talking the talk about sanctions but is also walking the walk,” Kuleba added.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU and partners would react “with unity, firmness and determination”, but the final decision requests with the member states.
Latvia and Lithuania supported the request to immediately impose some planned sanctions against Russia to “show that the EU is taking action”, contrary to the majority of EU member states.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the EU “should look for more than just an invasion” as the trigger for sanctions because Ukraine is already suffering economic and other impacts from the Russian military build-up on its borders.
“There are certain things that have already begun, they already carry a price, and they should warrant an answer,” Lansbergis told reporters in Brussels.
An EU official told EURACTIV that “we are now in exceptional times and exceptions to the usual practice are always possible – provided member states agree on that (unanimously), they can come up with new, flexible, innovative solutions (provided the treaty allows it) in order to have sanctions adopted fast”.
Beyond Russia sanctions, Lithuania has also called on the EU to impose additional sanctions on Belarus for hosting Russian troops, suggesting such measures could target oil and potash exports and thus close loopholes in the existing sanctions it has already targeted Minsk with.
“We have to be very specific about the cost for the current build-up for Belarus,” Landsbergis told reporters in Brussels.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]