EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell

EU Says It’s In ‘Deterrent Mode’ With Russia, Adopts Sanctions On Vagner Group

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European Union foreign ministers have met in Brussels to coordinate a sanctions response against Moscow if it launches a new military invasion of Ukraine amid a buildup of tens of thousands of Russian troops near the border.

EU diplomats told Reuters that their discussions in Brussels were focused on a potentially gradual increase of sanctions, ranging from possible travel bans and asset freezes on Russian politicians to banning financial and banking links with Russia.

“We are in deterrent mode,” EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.

Separately, EU diplomats later in the day approved a list of names and companies associated with the private Russian military company Vagner to be added immediately to existing sanctions regimes.

The company is accused by the West of working on behalf of the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine and other conflict zones around the world, and of committing human rights abuses.

The measures include a travel ban, a freeze on any assets held in the EU, and banning the bloc’s entities and individuals from doing business with those targeted.

The sanctions entered legal force immediately after their publication in the EU’s Official Journal on December 13, a legal register for the bloc’s regulations.

Russia denies a link between the government and the Vagner mercenaries, often describing the paramilitary force as trainers or advisers despite evidence they have been engaged in combat operations.

The Vagner Group is believed to be run by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is already under U.S. and EU sanctions.

Measures against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany to prevent it from becoming operational were also an option discussed on December 13, as well as targeting more Russian state-owned defense and energy companies or canceling natural-gas contracts, diplomats said.

The EU has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia over its forcible seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014 and over Moscow’s backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine in an ongoing conflict that has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014.

In recent weeks, Kyiv and its Western backers have accused Russia of massing troops near Ukraine as a possible prelude to an invasion as early as next month — something the Kremlin denies.

“In any case, we will send a clear signal that any aggression against Ukraine will have a high cost for Russia,” Borrell said on December 13, adding that the 27-country bloc was “studying together with the U.S. and the U.K. what [sanctions] could be, when and how, in a coordinated manner.”

“We are convinced that Russia is actually preparing for all-out war against Ukraine,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, adding: “If it’s an unprecedented attack…that means that the answer has to be unprecedented from the Western countries, as well.”

On December 12, the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialized nations — Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Canada, and Japan — warned Moscow of “massive consequences” and “severe” costs if it attacked Ukraine.

Russian officials deny Moscow is preparing any offensive, accuses Kyiv of provocation, and insists Russia has the right to move its forces anywhere it wants within the country.

Moscow has demanded legally binding security guarantees that NATO will not expand further east or place its weapons close to Russian territory.

Deputy Foreign Ministry Sergei Ryabkov appeared to push the Russian position even further on December 13, warning that there would be a confrontation if the United States and NATO don’t give the guarantees Moscow seeks.

U.S. and NATO officials have said that no country can veto the NATO aspirations of any country.

The United States and Eastern European members of the EU have opposed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which bypasses Ukraine. They say it will make Europe dependent on Russian gas deliveries and exposes the bloc to pressure from Moscow.

The EU foreign ministers meeting will be followed by a summit of the leaders of member states with their counterparts from Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova on December 15.

A summit of EU leaders will also take place the next day.

With reporting by Reuters, RFERL and AP

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