EU foreign ministers to discuss Russia crisis amid fears of ‘false-flag’ operations

EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell. [European Union]

EU foreign ministers meet with their Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels on Monday (21 February) amid growing fears that Russia could take a ‘false flag’ provocation as an excuse to take military action against Ukraine.

Kuleba is set to brief his European counterparts over breakfast on the current situation in the country’s east, as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported ceasefire violations in east Ukraine skyrocketing to their highest number this year.

The shelling in the eight-year conflict spiked sharply last week, as fears mount that Russia is paving the way for an invasion of Ukraine designed to reverse its pro-Western course.

Meanwhile, Minsk and Moscow had decided to “continue inspections”, Belarus’ defence ministry said on Sunday (20 February), citing increased military activity on their shared borders and an alleged “escalation” in east Ukraine.

The move is seen as a further tightening of the screws on Ukraine, already facing increased shelling from Russian-backed separatist rebels and a force of what Western capitals says is up to 190,000 Russian troops on its borders.

An EU senior official said the bloc would be ‘extremely concerned’ about the recent provocations in the Donbas and described Russia recent rhetoric and actions as going “in the direction of warfare”.

If this kind of pressure continues for weeks and months without an invasion, the EU “will obviously have to think what the answer to this is,” the same official added, in what has been stronger language than heard before in Brussels circles.

Foreign ministers will also participate in a cyber exercise.

After his short visit to Brussels, Kuleba is scheduled to travel to the United States to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday and address the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

Sanctions and their speed

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 still needs to be determined.

The package is closely coordinated with the US, UK and Canada, and talks over alignment with other partners such as South Korea, Japan and Switzerland are ongoing, according to EU diplomats.

When it comes to their imposition, EURACTIV understands the EU could move rather quickly, within days, on the proposed package since all legal texts are prepared and could be given the political green light by EU foreign ministers, likely at an emergency meeting to be called by EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell in case of Russian military action.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday (20 February), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen disclosed some details of the sanctions Moscow would face, saying Russia would be cut off from international financial markets and denied access to major export goods.

“Russia would in principle be cut off from the international financial markets,” von der Leyen told ARD public television late on Sunday evening.

Sanctions would be imposed on “all goods we make that Russia urgently needs to modernise and diversify its economy, where we are globally dominant, and they have no replacement,” she said.

She said sanctions would not be imposed until after any invasion, rejecting calls on Saturday by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his foreign minister for immediate sanctions.

Kuleba, speaking also in Munich, had repeated his calls on Western partners to implement at least part of the sanctions it has prepared against Russia.

“Russia has to be stopped right now. We see how events are unfolding,” Kuleba said.

“The move to sanctions is so enormous and consequential that we know we must always give Russia a chance to return to diplomacy and the negotiating table,” Von der Leyen said. “This window is still open.”

Von der Leyen said she is convinced Russia’s reliance on fossil fuel exports was its weakness.

“They make up two-thirds of its exports, and half of the Russia budget comes from them,” she said. Russia needed to modernise, and “precisely that would no longer be possible” if further sanctions were raised.

Counter-sanctions preparedness

In return, Russia is expected to retaliate with counter-sanctions, which could hit some EU countries more than others.

Some in the bloc, such as Italy, have in recent days expressed concerns about the impact further Russian sanctions will have on their domestic economies or gas supplies.

However, some in Brussels have also pointed out that counter-sanctions would not need to be large in size to have a detrimental effect.

In 2014, Russia imposed a “full embargo” on food imports from the EU, US and some other Western countries, in response to sanctions over Ukraine.

Estimations are that the most affected countries could be larger member states with big trade volume with Moscow, as well as those close to Russia geographically such as Finland, Poland and the Baltic countries.

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