Brussels — The United States and the European Union are preparing a powerful one-two punch against the Russian economy, with EU ambassadors meeting Tuesday to discuss a dramatic escalation in the trade bloc’s sanctions.
Frustrated by the apparent ineffectiveness of previous sanctions and outraged by the deaths of 298 people aboard the Malaysia Airlines plane downed over eastern Ukraine, ambassadors were considering measures include limiting Russia’s access to European capital markets and halting trade in arms and dual-use and sensitive technologies.
A decision on new EU sanctions was expected later in the day.
In a rare videoconference call with President Barack Obama on Monday, the leaders of Britain, Germany, Italy and France expressed their willingness to adopt new sanctions against Russia in coordination with the United States, an official French statement said. The Western nations are demanding Russia halt the alleged supply of arms to Ukrainian separatists and other actions that destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine.
The show of Western solidarity comes as the U.S. accuses Russia of ramping up its troop presence on its border with Ukraine and shipping more heavy weaponry to the pro-Moscow rebels.
“It’s precisely because we’ve not yet seen a strategic turn from (Russian President Vladimir) Putin that we believe it’s absolutely essential to take additional measures, and that’s what the Europeans and the United States intend to do this week,” said Tony Blinken, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
Europe, which has a much bigger trade relationship with Russia than the U.S., had lagged behind Washington with its earlier sanctions package, in part out of concern from leaders that the penalties could hurt their own economies. But a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said following Monday’s call that the West agreed that the EU should adopt a “strong package of sectoral sanctions as swiftly as possible.”
Until now, the trade bloc has only targeted specific individuals, businesses or rebel organizations.
Paul Ivan, a policy analyst with the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank, said the Europeans have decided to get tougher with Russia for several reasons, including the Kremlin repeatedly ignoring their demands to calm the situation in Ukraine, and the widespread shock and anger aroused by the downing of a Malaysian jetliner in eastern Ukraine. The Obama administration has blamed pro-Moscow insurgents for the July 17 disaster, in which 298 people, many of them EU nationals, lost their lives.
“I think EU leaders realized that this is not just a small localized conflict that they can half-ignore and the feeling of moral outrage has forced even the more reluctant ones to follow,” Ivan said.
On Monday, EU ambassadors also agreed to bring pressure to bear on influential Russians, potentially including members of Putin’s inner circle and support base, by allowing EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans to apply to Russians who have supported or benefited from the Kremlin’s takeover of Crimea. The ambassadors also agreed to target additional organizations and businesses for sanctions because of their alleged actions in violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Those measures were expected to take effect as early as Wednesday evening.