Ukraine crisis: EU, US poised to slap tough sanctions on Russia

The sanctions the EU is considering suggest the depth of alarm over Russia's actions regarding the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Western powers insist the referendum set there for Sunday is illegal.

Sean Dempsey/AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (l.) and US Secretary of State John Kerry stand together prior to a meeting at Winfield House in London, Friday, March 14, 2014. Kerry flew to London on Friday to meet with Lavrov in a last-minute bid to stave off a new chapter in the East-West crisis over Ukraine.

With Russia apparently intent upon annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, the United States and European Union are poised to adopt sanctions on Russian senior officials and business elites that just a few weeks ago would have been unthinkable.

The US had slapped Russia with sanctions before the deteriorating Ukraine crisis, most recently over human rights abuses related to the mysterious death of a Russian corruption whistle-blower.

But the surprisingly tough sanctions the EU is considering – some reports say EU foreign ministers on Monday will consider a list of up to 130 high-level Russians, including the defense minister and the CEOs of the country’s largest energy companies – suggest the depth of alarm over actions viewed across Western Europe as threatening a post-World War II order based on fixed national borders.

The adoption of Western sanctions on Russia next week would follow a referendum in Crimea Sunday expected to endorse secession from Ukraine and a return to Russia. (Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the Black Sea peninsula to what was then the Soviet republic of Ukraine.) Western powers insist the referendum is illegal because it violates the Ukrainian constitution, while Russia considers the vote a legitimate expression of Crimeans’ right to self-determination.

Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in London Friday in hopes of persuading Russia not to act on the referendum by proceeding to annex Crimea. But neither diplomat said the meeting accomplished a breakthrough, with Secretary Kerry saying he warned his counterpart of the “very serious steps” the West is prepared to take if Russia “does not find a way to change course.”

Kerry, who reiterated the Western view that Sunday’s referendum is “illegitimate,” emphasized that Mr. Lavrov assured him that Russian President Vladimir Putin would make no decisions on future steps on Crimea until after the vote.

But in his post-meeting remarks, Lavrov said Russia would “respect the will of the people of Crimea.”

The EU’s list of Russians it will consider for sanctions does not include Lavrov or Mr. Putin, according to Western officials. The US is also expected to announce new sanctions as early as Monday in a show of unity with the EU, but the US sanctions are also not expected to hit Lavrov or Putin.

While adoption of some sanctions appears inevitable, one issue that remained undecided Friday was whether the EU would proceed with visa bans and asset freezes against all the senior officials and business elites on its list or whether they would be phased in.

A common approach with economic sanctions – for example, the sanctions the West has imposed on Iran over its nuclear program – is to start with a few targets and to build on those as a way of ratcheting up pressure. 

The EU list of names is said to include Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, several aides close to Putin, and members of parliament.

After several hours of talks with Kerry, Lavrov deemed the discussion useful but added that it resulted in no “common vision” between the two sides concerning how to proceed.

The Russian minister denied any Russian intentions to invade eastern Ukraine, despite stepped-up Russian military activity in recent days in Crimea and along Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Lavrov also said that sanctions would be “counterproductive ... and will not facilitate mutual interests.” 

EU sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans could be slapped on both the CEO of the natural gas monopoly Gazprom and the head of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, EU officials told European reporters.

Such sanctions would be “stupid, petty, and obvious sabotage of themselves,” a spokesman for Rosneft, Mikhail Leontyev, told Reuters Friday. Striking out at Russian energy giants would “primarily affect ... business partners in the West,” he said.

EU leaders have long been reluctant to confront Russia as a result of Western Europe’s dependence on Russia for natural gas. Russia supplies about 30 percent of Europe’s natural gas, and nearly 10 percent of total energy needs.

But some say a relatively mild winter – which has left Western Europe’s gas supplies at full and encouraged discussion of longer-term options for weaning Europe from Russian energy dependence – has given EU leaders greater leeway for considering sanctions.

Despite the bravado of some Russian officials publicly brandishing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies, some say it is really the other way around – that Russia’s resources-based economy is more dependent on Western Europe, where it sends 70 percent of its crucial energy exports.

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