The European Union’s foreign ministers were set Monday to consider punishing Moscow with sanctions over its actions in Crimea, one day after the Ukrainian peninsula voted to join Russia in a referendum.
Tensions between Moscow and the West have reached fever pitch, after thousands of suspected Russian troops began controlling access to Crimea’s airports and blocking local Ukrainian military bases in late February.
Moscow argues that the Crimean population, 60 per cent of which is made up of ethnic Russians, has a right to self-determination. But the West rejected its referendum as illegal.
The United States has already imposed visa restrictions on Russians and Crimeans accused of threatening Ukraine’s stability, while the EU has suspended negotiations with Moscow on a new cooperation agreement and the easing of visa rules.
The bloc’s leaders have also threatened travel bans, asset freezes and the cancellation of a June EU-Russia summit if Moscow does not tone down tensions in Ukraine.
“If there is one agreement among member states so far, it is that we have not yet seen any de-escalation,” a senior EU official said on condition of anonymity before the referendum.
The EU worked over the weekend to draw up a list of possible sanction targets. Speculation has been rife that senior Russian officials will be among them, and diplomats said Crimean officials could also be hit.
The “small, but politically significant list” should send “a clear message not just in Crimea, but to Russia,” said diplomat who requested anonymity.
Another added that the idea would be to go after “people with a direct responsibility in the threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” The final decision rests with the foreign ministers, who have to agree to sanctions unanimously.
Some countries with close trade and business links with Russia are said to be wary of acting too aggressively against Moscow, fearing that it could slam the door on any dialogue opportunities.
Ukraine’s interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deschytsya will be in Brussels on Monday, but is not due to take part in the EU ministers’ talks. Instead, he is expected to meet with NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen and take part in a Friends of Ukraine breakfast.