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EU leaders threaten Russia with sanctions over Ukraine

The EU on Thursday threatened Russia with “massive consequences,” “severe cost” and even coordinated sanctions in the event of any “further aggression against Ukraine,” according to conclusions adopted during a European Council summit.

But the seemingly tough talk from Brussels masked continuing disagreement among the 27 countries over precisely what action might be taken, as well as uncertainty over whether the EU and international partners, including the U.S. and U.K., had even reached an agreed-upon definition of what would constitute “further aggression” by Moscow.

“The European Council reiterates its full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” EU leaders stated in their conclusions, which were approved Thursday evening at their summit in Brussels. “Any further aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response, including restrictive measures coordinated with partners.”

Russia violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity in 2014, beginning with an invasion and annexation of Crimea. That was followed by the Kremlin’s support for a violent separatist uprising in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, initiating a war that has continued for nearly eight years.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged his Western supporters, including the EU, to impose preemptive punitive sanctions against Russia in the hope of deterring a new invasion or other attacks — a request that EU officials said was virtually impossible to grant given legal and political obstacles.

The U.S. and its NATO allies, as well as the EU, have been working to coordinate their plans since Washington began to warn loudly of a potentially imminent threat, sharing intelligence about a huge Russian military mobilization along the border with Ukraine.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s true intentions are unclear, his government has issued a raft of demands, including hard assurances that Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO. Some Russian officials have openly threatened an attack should the West not meet Moscow’s requests.

In their conclusions on Thursday evening, the EU leaders also reiterated their commitment to the so-called Normandy Format peace talks led by France and Germany. So far, the diplomatic initiative has failed to resolve the war in Eastern Ukraine through the implementation of a peace accord known as Minsk 2.

“The European Council encourages diplomatic efforts and supports the Normandy Format in achieving the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements,” the leaders stated.

Russia in recent months has refused to participate in Normandy Format meetings either at the leader level or the ministerial level, and many officials and diplomats believe the talks are all but dead.

Putin has insisted Ukraine is failing to live up to its commitments under the agreement, including holding local elections in the disputed Donetsk and Luhansk regions and taking steps toward granting them special autonomous status.

Kyiv, in turn, has accused Russia of failing to create the preconditions set forth in the agreement, including a withdrawal of weapons and fighters. Ukrainian officials insist that authority over the regions and control of the external borders must be restored before elections or other further steps can be taken.

At the summit’s closing news conference, the EU’s leaders were resolute in voicing their support for Ukraine and unwavering in their warnings to Russia. 

“Our concerns related to Russia’s military buildup on the eastern Ukrainian borders are well known,” European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said. “Our position is very clear. We maintain our call on Russia to de-escalate tensions and refrain from any further aggression.”

And she spoke specifically to the bloc’s sanctions threat.

“Let there be no doubt,” she said. “If Russia were to move against Ukraine, the Union will be in a position to take sanctions that could extract a massive cost. We have done our work in that respect.” 

European Council President Charles Michel echoed her remarks: “Were there to be any military aggression toward Ukraine, there would be very serious consequences.” 

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, whose country is wrapping up its six-month presidency of the Council of the EU, said EU countries had learned the lessons from 2014.

“Our positions are united, and our words were clear,” Janša said. “We will not have a repetition of what happened when Russia invaded Crimea. We’re well prepared this time around.” 

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