Brussels - The European Union will raise the stakes in a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine on Monday by slapping sanctions on Russian officials, a day after voters in Ukraine's Crimea region opted to join Russia in a referendum the EU condemned as illegal.
EU diplomats worked late into the night on Sunday, haggling over a list of people in Crimea and Russia who will be hit with travel bans and asset freezes for actions which “threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”
The initial list of 120 to 130 names, including senior figures in Russia's military and political establishment, will be whittled down to perhaps “tens or scores” of people before EU foreign ministers take the final decision in Brussels on Monday, diplomats say.
Ministers are also expected to cancel an EU-Russia Summit scheduled to be held in Sochi in June.
Sunday's Crimea referendum has only reinforced European anger over Russia's military intervention there, despite results showing Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to break away from Ukraine and to join Russia.
An EU statement on Sunday said the referendum was illegal and illegitimate and its outcome would not be recognised.
“It is quite clear that the behaviour of Russia until now is completely unacceptable,” Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said as he arrived for a meeting of Socialist foreign ministers in Brussels on Sunday evening.
Timmermans said he expected EU sanctions adopted on Monday would be “relatively limited” but said there could be more to come, possibly as soon as an EU summit later this week.
The risk of Europe and Russia becoming locked in a damaging spiral of economic retaliation depended on Russia, he said.
“I would do anything possible to avoid sanctions, because I believe everybody will suffer if we get into sanctions, but the only ones who can prevent this are the Russians,” he said.
SANCTIONS ON THE WAY
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, accusing Russia of preparing the annexation of Crimea, said Moscow had not accepted the ways out of the crisis it had been offered.
“So (on Monday) we'll have to take decisions that will make clear our attitude to the preparation of this annexation. That will be an area of sanctions in the next step,” he told Germany's ZDF television.
He said he would argue for a process of gradually tightening sanctions “in which there is a way out at every step.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that the EU must adopt measures on Monday “that send a strong signal to Russia that this challenge to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine will bring economic and political consequences.”
German tabloid newspaper Bild reported last week that the chief executive officers of Russia's two biggest companies - Gazprom's Alexei Miller and Igor Sechin of Rosneft - would be on the final sanctions list, but European diplomats have dismissed that report.
EU foreign ministers are expected on Monday to condemn what they will call “an illegal referendum” in Crimea, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters.
“It was held in the visible presence of armed soldiers under conditions of intimidation of civic activists and journalists, blacking out of Ukrainian television channels and obstruction of civilian traffic in and out of Crimea,” they will say.
They will urge Russia to defuse the crisis and hold direct talks with Ukraine's government but will repeat the EU's warning that any further steps by Russia to destabilise the situation in Ukraine would lead to “additional and far-reaching consequences for relations in a broad range of economic areas.”
Russia's military occupation of Crimea after Ukraine's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted has provoked a deep crisis in East-West relations reminiscent of the Cold War.
Yanukovich's decision to turn his back on signing a trade and political agreement with the 28-nation EU last November in favour of closer ties with Moscow prompted months of street protests that eventually led to his downfall. - Reuters