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EU leaders gloss over disagreements on Russia sanctions

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EU leaders meeting in Brussels yesterday managed to put up a united front on Russia, given that their discussion was kept brief and vague enough to avoid any disagreements over what type of aggression against Ukraine would trigger sanctions.

It also helped that one of the Russia-friendly voices, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, wasn’t present for the Ukraine discussion. (He was busy receiving Brazil’s populist president Jair Bolsonaro instead, who was the only recent guest at the Kremlin not to be seated at the comically long table.)

One idea being raised is for the European Commission to find ways of compensating the most hard-hit member states for the economic impact of the sanctions and Russia’s likely countermeasures. We’ll give you the rundown on what was discussed and what to expect in the near future.

Meanwhile, the EU-African Union summit is likely to end today with a statement agreed by all delegations — after negotiators ironed out remaining issues over vaccine patent waivers and language on gas as a fossil fuel that can continue to be part of developing nations’ energy mix.

Speaking of gas, Italy’s Mario Draghi left the summit early yesterday, even skipping a roundtable he was supposed to co-chair at the EU-African Union summit, as he rushed back to Rome to finalise details of a support package for Italian households hit by the rise in gas prices.

With Nato defence ministers having met yesterday and restated their support for Ukraine and Georgia, we’ve caught up with Denmark’s minister — the only Scandinavian country both in Nato and the EU.

We’ll also look into Greece’s latest trouble over alleged migrant pushbacks after an international investigation into the death of two African migrants washed up on Turkey’s shore.

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On their way out of yesterday’s informal council on Russia, EU leaders stressed how united they were in the face of a potential attack on Ukraine and how little credence they gave to Moscow’s alleged steps towards de-escalation, write Valentina Pop and Sam Fleming in Brussels.

In a sign of their determination, said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the union has now prepared its sanctions package, saying that when the moment comes we will “act decisively”.

But beneath the broad agreement over the need for robust sanctions against Russian finance, businesses and individuals lie a number of differences between member states on how to respond to the Ukraine crisis. Here’s a list of issues that remain contentious, even if leaders steered clear from tussling over them yesterday:

Sanctions trigger: Leaders didn’t suggest that recent shelling in Donbas should be considered sufficient for adopting the new sanctions. But they are also not in full agreement on what kind of attack would trigger the sanctions. Leaders are well aware that assessing exactly what Moscow is and is not doing to destabilise or undermine Ukraine may not prove to be a straightforward matter. Some countries espouse the view that a gradual approach, hitting only certain sectors, would be preferable to the maximalist view that the entire package should be triggered at once. There seems to be a consensus emerging, however, that not just a full-scale invasion should trigger the sanctions, but also various degrees of aggression.

Blacklisted names: The initial proposal made by the bloc’s diplomatic service is for 27 Russians to be blacklisted, according to two officials familiar with the matter. Poland and other like-minded countries would have opted for 55 people to start with, on the other hand. Officials say the initial list could be lengthened, depending on the severity of the attack.

Mitigation and compensation: Several leaders yesterday floated the possibility of the EU compensating countries worst-affected by the fallout of the sanctions regime, for instance if Russia were to cut gas deliveries to central and eastern Europe, officials said. Italy, in particular, is interested in finding ways of mitigating the impact of sanctions on hard-hit member states. Rome is anxious to avoid damaging effects on its energy sector.

Sanctions talk: EU countries are not all on the same page when it comes to communicating in detail and publicly what sanctions to expect in case of an invasion. Poland, the Baltics, but also Greece, would like a more US-style approach, where a maximum amount of detail is made public now to deter Russia from attacking. Other member states — Germany, France and Italy included — espouse the view that Moscow would see this as a provocation and that communicating privately and in broad terms is sufficient to convey the message that any aggression would have consequences.

Extra funding for Ukraine: The European parliament yesterday approved an €1.2bn EU loan for Ukraine, and the US has also suggested it will offer loan guarantees worth $1bn. But officials say more economic assistance will be needed given the strains that the invasion warnings are imposing on Ukraine. G7 finance ministers said earlier this week that they were ready to act “at very short notice” with further economic and financial support for Ukraine. Charles Michel, European Council president, has raised the idea of a donors’ conference to help the country.

Chart du jour: Economic hurt

Energy, pharmaceuticals and the car industry would be among the sectors most affected by an EU-Russia sanctions tit-for-tat, given that they are the most-traded products, according to Eurostat. (More here)

Danish build-up

In a sign of how Russian aggression has stiffened Nato resolve, Denmark’s defence minister said the country would reinforce its presence in the Baltic states and Greenland, writes Andy Bounds in Brussels.

Morten Bodskov, who took the job only this month, told Europe Express that while Copenhagen backed dialogue it was boosting its defences. Denmark’s priority is increasing its military presence in the “far north”, where Russia is active in the Arctic Sea, and in the Baltics.

“When it comes to the Baltic countries we have a lot of support in parliament for supporting them. We are a small country but we have a lot of capability,” he said.

Denmark has committed to the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence. Its level has been growing but is only about 1.4 per cent. “When we will reach it is a political question. It is a lot of money to find,” Bodskov said.

Greece troubles

The Greek government is in hot water again over migration, after an international media investigation alleged that two African asylum-seekers died after likely being pushed back by Greek authorities, writes Eleni Varvitsioti.

The report published yesterday in the Guardian, Der Spiegel, LightHouse Reports and Mediapart investigates the case of a 36-year-old man from Ivory Coast and a 33-year-old Cameroonian who boarded a dinghy on the Turkish coast to cross over to a Greek island in September 2021.

Although the two men did reach the northeastern shore of Samos, their bodies were found a few days later close to Turkey’s shore. The allegation is that they were apprehended by Greek authorities, put into a speedboat and then pushed into the water where they drowned.

Athens in recent years has been heavily criticised by NGOs and human rights groups for systemically denying entry to asylum seekers coming mainly via Turkey.

Last month, the UN refugee agency called for an urgent investigation after the death of 19 people in the Evros region who froze to death after Greek authorities allegedly left them without clothes in freezing temperatures on the Turkish side of the border.

Greece’s ministry of migration and asylum denied the allegations and called yesterday’s report “Turkish-driven propaganda”, stressing that Greece has been protecting the external border of the European Union “in full compliance with international law and in full respect of the charter of fundamental rights”.

According to the ministry’s data between 2015 and 2021, the Hellenic coast guard rescued more than 230,000 third-country nationals who were in danger at sea.

What to watch today

Final day of the EU-African Union summit takes place in Brussels

US vice-president Kamala Harris joins EU officials and leaders at the Munich Security Conference

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meets Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko in Moscow

Smart reads

De-escalation, deconstructed: The European Council on Foreign Relations is deconstructing Moscow’s possible reasons for claiming it is withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border. Putin could be seeking to gain some diplomatic points, exploring other means of pressuring Ukraine, and extracting a maximum number of concessions from the west.

Punchier penalties: It has become clear in the past eight years that transatlantic sanctions against Russia are not a “passing phase” but the new normal, as western relations with Moscow settle into a more confrontational posture. That means the US and Europe need to work on updating their sanctions policy to suit this new era, according to a paper from the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Forum on Russia.

Indonesia violence: The Netherlands’ government and military leadership deliberately condoned the systematic and widespread use of extreme violence by the country’s armed forces in the war against Indonesia, according to the findings of a government-sponsored research programme. PM Mark Rutte yesterday apologised to the people of Indonesia for the violence.

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