Calls for tougher sanctions on Russia test EU unity ahead of Biden visit

Europe faces demands to stop land and sea trade and cut off Russian fossil fuel imports

A tanker loads its cargo of liquefied natural gas in the port of Prigorodnoye, Russia. AP

European leaders will be under pressure to agree the toughest possible sanctions on Russia when they meet for two days of high-stakes diplomacy this week, after successive rounds of embargoes against Moscow’s elite and financial machine failed to persuade it to call off the invasion of Ukraine.

The US announced on Tuesday that a fresh sanctions package was coming after diplomats from northern and eastern Europe in particular lobbied Brussels to go further than in four previous rounds of measures.

Although western leaders say sanctions are biting Russia’s economy, they have not achieved their objective — as described by Estonia’s Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets this week — of “making this war as costly as possible for Russia so that it would withdraw its troops from Ukraine”.

But calls for even tougher measures, such as banning Russian fossil fuel imports as the US has already done, have so far run into opposition from countries reliant on oil and gas deliveries from the east.

German officials fear that an embargo would drive up already alarming energy prices and threaten supply chains in Europe’s largest economy, amid doubts that the public would tolerate such a cost.

The sanctions debate will put the European Union's vaunted unity to the test when US President Joe Biden comes to visit this week for a meeting of Nato leaders in Brussels, talks between G7 countries and a cameo at a European Council summit.

The flurry of diplomacy will coincide with the invasion of Ukraine entering its second month and the list of alleged Russian atrocities growing as the Kremlin presses ahead with what it calls a special military operation. Western countries are providing financial and military aid to Ukraine as well as imposing sanctions on Moscow.

European leaders are under pressure to take more action to help Ukraine. AP

In meetings preparing for the EU summit, demands for a wider energy boycott on Russia have been accompanied by calls to block land and sea trade with Russia and widen its suspension from international payments system Swift.

They follow the measures taken so far to limit trade in key industries such as iron and steel, cut off sales of luxury goods to Russia and sanction prominent individuals in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Most of Europe has also closed its airspace to Russian planes, but Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofad took a proposal to Brussels to follow that measure by locking Russian ships out of Europe’s seaports.

Road vehicles from Russia and its ally Belarus could also be banned from crossing Europe by land if the EU adopts what Mr Kofad called the “strongest sanctions we can agree upon” in the 27-member bloc.

Another proposal being championed by Estonia is to expel Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council, deepening its isolation from international relations.

The Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body, has already expelled Russia and the country’s diplomats faced a walkout protest from European counterparts at a meeting of the UN body in Geneva.

Estonia's Ms Liimets said talks on an expulsion should come alongside an immediate fifth package of sanctions that “continues to raise the cost of war for Russia”.

European leaders will meet in Brussels this week with US President Joe Biden set to make a guest appearance. EPA

Czech minister Jan Lipavsky said such a package should include a full removal of Russia from Swift, after the partial ban introduced in early March covered only certain Russian banks.

He said the aim was to cut off what he called Russia’s “money machine” and thereby choke funding for its military operations.

Sanctions “are not about overthrowing Putin or removing yachts from the possession of his oligarchs and crooks,” he said. “Sanctions are also about undermining the Russian ability to wage war.”

This explanation is also given by supporters of a full oil and gas embargo, who say that continued energy imports are effectively financing Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine.

Russia provides about 45 per cent of gas and coal imports and 25 per cent of oil imports in the EU, prompting its members to speed up efforts to reduce that reliance since the war began.

Germany’s government is promising to end its reliance on Russian energy as soon as possible by striking deals with other suppliers and accelerating its renewable energy push, but has so far resisted calls for a full embargo.

The German Economy Ministry said such a boycott could lead to lower economic growth, higher prices, disruption to supply chains and the threat of bankruptcies, which would have to be taken into account in a decision on sanctions.

Any embargo might have to be kept up for years rather than months and the social consequences “could not be ignored”, it said.

Other countries such as France and Austria have not ruled out further sanctions but have spoken of waiting for the right moment and ensuring that the measures taken so far are fully implemented.

Diplomats are discussing potential further measures and Europe will not hesitate to toughen sanctions if it becomes necessary, said France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune.

But “it’s important that we keep a cool head”, said his Austrian counterpart Karoline Edtstadler. “The essential thing now is to maintain the unity of the EU.”

Updated: March 23, 2022, 7:02 AM