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4th Feb 2023

Russia-sanctions talks go to the wire as EU leaders gather

  • Draft summit declaration had planned to announce ninth package of Russia sanctions (Photo: European Council)
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EU leaders' bark will be worse than their bite on Russia sanctions at this week's summit, if disagreements drag out.

"The European Council discussed how to further increase collective pressure on Russia to end its war of aggression and to withdraw its troops from Ukraine," leaders aimed to say in a joint declaration in Brussels on Friday (16 December).

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The EU-27 also "welcomes the reinforcement of EU restrictive measures against Russia, including through the EU's ninth package", they had aimed to say, according to a draft circulated last weekend and seen by EUobserver.

The summit conclusions are larded with grandiloquent rhetoric on Ukraine support.

Leaders were to also endorse putting Russian president Vladimir Putin on trial one day for the crime of "aggression" and task the EU Commission with studying "options to use frozen [Russian] assets to support Ukraine's reconstruction and for the purposes of reparation".

But as the clock ticks to Friday, not all 27 capitals are happy with the ninth Russia measures.

For one, Hungary's Russia-friendly prime minister Viktor Orbán is pushing to cut three individuals from an EU visa-ban and asset-freeze list before going ahead, diplomatic sources said.

The Hungarian foreign ministry declined to say who or why, but Orbán's last-minute timing was seen as obnoxious by some of his EU colleagues.

"Capitals have two or three opportunities to say no to individuals [in preliminary sanctions talks], so these last-minute objections amount to political corruption," an EU diplomat said.

It "sends a message to Putin that even if you [a Putin crony] are on the blacklist, we can still save you," they said.

Meanwhile, Germany is trying to negotiate carve-outs in an import ban on Russian fertilisers in the name of protecting global food security, a second EU diplomat said.

Several other EU states were also angling for national derogations from a ban on business with Russia's mining industries, he added.

"We've reached an impasse. There are differences on fundamental issues which are hard to reconcile," he said.

"All of us want to have a deal before the EU Council and that's what the Czechs [the current EU presidency holders] are pushing for," a third EU diplomat said.

But EU ambassadors' talks on sanctions were likely to drag out into Friday in the margins of the summit, he predicted.

"They'll try not to bother leaders too much with this topic," he said.

The latest sanctions come amid Russian strikes on Ukrainian heating and water systems, expected to push hundreds of thousands more Ukrainian refugees into EU countries.

Ten months into the war, EU leaders aimed to say on Friday they remained "committed to providing political and military support to Ukraine ... in particular air defence capacities".

They were also to pledge ongoing "support for displaced persons, both within and outside Ukraine" and to send mobile heating stations, power generators, and power transformers to help people survive the cold.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz, on Wednesday, pressured Orbán, who has also vetoed and delayed previous EU moves on Russia and Ukraine.

"Anyone who thinks he can undermine the values of the EU, to which every member state has committed itself, by blocking its foreign and security policies, will fail," Scholz said in the Bundestag, Reuters reported.

But sanctions details aside, deeper divisions between EU powers on how to handle Putin also threaten to spoil the summit atmosphere.

The Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland summoned the French ambassadors in their capitals earlier this week to formally file a diplomatic complaint against French president Emmanuel Macron's cosying up to the Russian president.

Macron said on French TV on 3 December Europe needed "to give [security] guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table".

Macron also said in June the West should not "humiliate" Putin on the battlefield, prompting earlier outrage in central Europe.

"It's Ukraine that needs security guarantees against Russia, not the other way around," an EU diplomat from one of the eastern European capitals said.

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