These Countries Have ‘Disgraced Themselves’ in Blocking Russian Sanctions

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Umit Bektas/Reuters
Umit Bektas/Reuters

As Ukraine buckles under Russia’s brutal invasion, sparking the worst military bloodshed on European territory since the end of World War II, European leaders are haggling over sanctions, making sure being tough won’t hurt their own economies too much in the process.

Hours after the invasion began on Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised “massive” sanctions that would cripple Russia’s financial standing. But it was soon clear that Russia’s tentacles are so deeply embedded in Europe’s strongest economies that punishing Putin will come at a high price. Italy has asked that luxury goods so dear to Russian oligarchs be excluded. Germany pushed for an exemption on the energy sector before eventually halting Nord Stream 2 certification but on Thursday refused to agree to block Russia from the SWIFT bank payment system. Other countries, including Hungary, dug in hard to block the toughest sanctions on the table.

Former President of the European Council Donald Tusk tweeted an angry missive to European leaders who have so far blocked the sanctions. “In this war everything is real: Putin’s madness and cruelty, Ukrainian victims, bombs falling on Kyiv,” he wrote Friday. “Only your sanctions are pretended. Those EU governments, which blocked tough decisions (i.e. Germany, Hungary, Italy) have disgraced themselves.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A damaged residential building hit by an early morning missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Chris McGrath/Getty</div>

A damaged residential building hit by an early morning missile strike in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Chris McGrath/Getty

After negotiations failed to produce the “massive sanctions” promised on Thursday, European leaders will go back to the negotiation table on Friday, likely adopting what is referred to as an “incrementalist” approach even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told them he may not speak to them again because Russian special agents are out to assassinate him. “He told us he doesn’t know whether he will be able to speak with us another time so it’s tough,” Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel said Friday, according to Reuters. “We have to know how serious the situation is in Ukraine.”

On Friday, Italian prime minister Mario Draghi told reporters he was fearful for the Ukraine leader. “Zelenskyi told us that he is hiding somewhere and that Ukraine has no more time,” Draghi said according to a tweet by a reporter. “He was supposed to attend a phone call at 9.30 a.m. but he couldn’t make it.”

Among the exclusions many European leaders want to “keep up their sleeves” are visa-free travel to Europe for Russian diplomats and anything that would make it difficult for nations to pay for Russian energy.

Leaders, speaking at the end of Thursday’s talks, admitted punishing Putin was proving difficult. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte told reporters “more work needs to be done to assess what happens if Russia is cut off” with regard to blocking Russia from using SWIFT, as has been suggested by most of the G7 leaders outside Europe.

Some sanctions that are likely to go through are limiting Russia’s access to some of Europe’s financial services, prohibiting the sale of equipment to Russian oil refineries, and blocking the sale of European aircraft to Russian airlines. Also on the table are targeting specific oligarchs, like those who own property in Italy, Malta, and Spain—and whose super yachts have mostly all suspiciously disappeared from ports in Sardinia and elsewhere, likely moored in friendlier waters.

One unnamed EU diplomat expressed frustration with his colleagues to the Financial Times. “The question is, what are we waiting for on the other sanctions?” he said. “If we can’t do Swift, can’t we at least not be slow on oligarchs?” Another diplomat, speaking to a Politico reporter in Brussels, was even more blunt: “We have to wait until Kyiv is carpet-bombed before we can isolate Putin economically.”

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