Ahead of a summit of EU leaders later this week, the European Union is struggling to agree on its next steps in sanctioning Russia over its war in Ukraine.
After approving and imposing an unprecedented series of sanctions on Moscow in just a few weeks, EU officials are now grappling with two interrelated questions: What should they target next? And what should be the trigger?
Some countries, such as Germany, are signaling support for a pause, to review the effect of the sanctions imposed so far and close loopholes. But others, such as Poland and the Baltic states, are warning against a loss of momentum that could be seen by Moscow as a sign that pressure from the EU is easing.
“Europe cannot give an impression of fatigue when the war in Ukraine has not ended,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters on Monday as he arrived at a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels. “We cannot get tired of imposing sanctions.”
So far, EU governments have been unable to agree on whether their next step should be a high-profile move such as banning imports of Russian oil, despite calls to do so from Warsaw and the Baltics.
At the same time, EU ministers are trying to make clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that more sanctions are being readied and could be imposed at any moment.
“We need to always look towards new sanctions and prepare new possible sanctions,” Danish Foreign Affairs Minister Jeppe Kofod said on Monday.
Until recent days, even asking a question about sanctions in the EU “risked to be seen as a pro-Putin question,” said one EU diplomat. But now some countries are arguing openly that the EU needs to keep some options in reserve, to be able to respond should Russia commit further outrages.
Not everyone in the EU’s halls of power is convinced by that view. It is “accepting the idea that something more terrible will happen,” one senior diplomat complained. “Keeping something in the pocket as a deterrent is clearly not working.”
“This wait-and-see approach is not OK,” the diplomat said, asking rhetorically if Russia’s actions in Ukraine were not already enough to go further.
“If not now, then when?” the diplomat asked.
That is precisely the question EU officials are wrestling with.
One trigger for a new wave of Western sanctions has already been spelled out publicly: the use of chemical — or even nuclear — weapons. Both the U.S. and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian have made clear Moscow would face further punishment if it attacks with unconventional arms.
Other potential triggers are only mentioned behind closed doors.
One would be the killing of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His personal plea for help to EU leaders last month — when he warned them in a video call that this could be the last time they saw him alive — led to a stunning acceleration of Western support for Kyiv at the end of February.
Another trigger would be a large-scale massacre of civilians or attacks on humanitarian corridors, which would prompt massive public outrage in the EU.
“We have to start discussing red lines,” Landsbergis said. “Are there any? And what would be the red line for the West, for all of us?”
However, even without the crossing of any red lines, EU leaders may still feel they need to have something to show from their two-day summit, which takes place in Brussels on Thursday and Friday this week.
Two EU diplomats said one of the main drivers of the last sanctions package was that EU governments decided they needed an announcement for the leaders’ summit in Versailles earlier this month.
However, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, played down expectations of new measures being approved at this week’s gathering.
“The leaders will consider again what else can be done in the field of sanctions,” Borrell told reporters after Monday’s meeting of foreign ministers. But he added: “I don’t think there is going to be a formal decision of a new package of sanctions.”
While governments debate their next steps, the European Commission is preparing a potential fifth package of sanctions that could be approved at short notice if necessary.
Possible measures could include adding two major Russian banks — Sberbank and Gazprombank — to the list of institutions banned from the international SWIFT payments system.
EU governments have offered their own proposals. Poland has called for an all-out trade ban on Russia. Other countries, such as Denmark, are pushing for stricter access for Russian ships to European ports.
But the big question remains whether the next package would include curbing Russian energy imports. Brussels is eyeing a ban on oil imports as a first step in targeting Russian revenues from energy.
“Sanctions are about undermining the Russian ability to wage a war,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský said when asked about energy sanctions. “We have to think about this money machine.”
Other EU countries fear Russia would respond to such a step by cutting off gas supplies to the EU.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó threatened Monday to block energy-related sanctions. “We will not support sanctions that could pose a risk to energy supplies for Hungary,” he declared.
Some officials are less blunt. But they warn against going all-in too soon and urge caution to make sure further sanctions are legally watertight.
“Substance and speed have to go hand in hand,” said another EU diplomat.
Another factor clouding the EU’s decision-making is the question of how long the sanctions might stay in place. With the duration and outcome of the war highly uncertain, governments have to take into account that any sanctions they impose now could be in place for years. That’s a particularly problematic issue when it comes to energy sanctions, which could bite hard for Europe over a cold winter.
Sarah Anne Aarup and Paola Tamma contributed reporting.
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network