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18th Feb 2019

EU wary of additional Russia sanctions

  • O'Sullivan with EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini (Photo: ec.europa.au)

The EU is wary of imposing new sanctions on Russia over Syria and over US election meddling due to the risk of a backlash, a senior diplomat has said.

David O'Sullivan, the EU ambassador in Washington, told a US Senate hearing on Tuesday (4 April) that US plans to block investments in Russia’s oil and gas sector would be difficult to follow.

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  • Mogherini meets Trump spokesman Sean Spicer (Photo: ec.europa.au)

"Many of our member states are heavily dependent upon [energy] imports from Russia and it would be very important not to destabilise that situation," he said, according to the Reuters news agency.

The EU and US already imposed sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

These include credit curbs on Russian energy firms and a ban on sales of high-end technology.

But a US bill, the Counteracting Russian Hostilities Act, wants to ban all investments, worth more than $20 million, in the Russian oil and gas sector - including in pipelines such as Russia and Germany’s North Stream 2.

The package of sanctions is to be imposed over Russia’s aggression in Syria and Ukraine, but also due to its election meddling in the US and in Europe.

It would impose asset freezes and visa bans on people guilty of cyber attacks against democratic institutions and create an anti-corruption taskforce to stop secret Russian funding of “political parties, think tanks, and civil society groups that sow distrust in democratic institutions, [and] promote xenophobic and illiberal views”.

Despite his reticence on the Hostilities bill, O'Sullivan, the EU ambassador, told senators that he had “no indication” that EU and US resolve to maintain existing Russia sanctions was wavering.

“There is still remarkable unity of purpose between the United States and the European Union with regard to those issues” he said.

The question arose amid allegations that US president Donald Trump had shady contacts with Russia, but the Hostilities Act has bipartisan support and Trump’s security chiefs have criticised Russia in strident terms.

Kurt Volker, the former US ambassador to Nato, told Tuesday’s Senate hearing that Russia was trying to exploit issues such as the migrant crisis to “weaken Europe”.

He said it was “directly funding” divisive far-right parties such as the National Front in France and Jobbik in Hungary.

It was “engaged massively in advancing propaganda throughout Europe” and used “fake news and hacking and trolling to influence and distort European public perceptions”.

It was also using energy “to pressure governments into more pro-Russian policies” Volker said, echoing O'Sullivan's concern.

Daniel Baer, the former US ambassador to the OSCE, a multilateral body in Europe, said Russian leader Vladimir Putin wanted to weaken Western states because “strong democracies and the rule of law pose a threat to his own kleptocratic authoritarianism”.

He said pro-Trump interference in the US election was deemed by Russian spy chiefs to have been “the most successful Russian intelligence operation since the end of the Cold War”.

He also warned that Russia would try to “sabotage or skew outcomes of upcoming elections in Germany and France” by hacking, propaganda, and corruption.

“The White House should instruct the Director of National Intelligence to review our current intelligence sharing with allies and partners in Europe to identify additional opportunities … to inform our partners about Russian efforts to attack their democratic processes”, he said.

He praised a small counter-propaganda unit in O’Sullivan’s foreign service, East StratCom, for helping to raise awareness on Russian disinformation.

He also said the Hostilities act should see the US take the lead in tracing clandestine Russian money in Europe.

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