EU leaders threaten to get tough with Moscow

17 December 2021

At their last meeting of the year, EU Heads of State and Government moved to threaten Russia with “massive consequences” and “severe cost” should it invade Ukraine. The outcry follows a huge build-up of Russian military forces as the Ukrainian border in recent weeks and a similar warning by G7 Foreign Ministers. 

For almost a decade now, eastern Ukraine has been engulfed in internal conflict after Russia’s invasion and illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and a shadow war in the Donbass region. 

With its traditional conclusions, “the European Council reiterates its full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and threatened Russian President Putin that “any further aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response, including restrictive measures coordinated with partners.”

Speaking to the press after the summit, which was the first for new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz after Merkel’s 16-year reign, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that “if Russia were to move against Ukraine, the EU will be in a position to take sanctions that could extract a massive cost. We have done our work in that respect,” and added “Let there be no doubt.” 

Despite leaders’ uncommonly strong statement towards a country like Russia, significant questions remain outstanding. Chief among them, an agreement of how to define “further aggression” which would then warrant a response. While it is clear that the EU, together with its NATO partners, will be forced to respond should Russian forces violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine, it is much less clear what their response will be in case of a hybrid conflict. Essentially, nobody wants to be seen as escalating force or for potentially giving Russia an excuse for invasion. 

With regards to the economic sanctions threat, while the EU already had sanctions in place on Russian entities over the Crimean annexation, EU leaders have refused a call by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to pre-emptively sanction Russia. The call made at Wednesday’s Eastern Partnership Summit, however, was unanimously rejected by the EU’s leaders amid legal and political concerns. 

Meanwhile, the European Council’s conclusions also reinforced their support for the Franco-German led “Normandy Format,” which seeks to bring the conflict to a diplomatic resolution. 

In any case, with pressure for strong economic sanctions increasing, so is the pressure on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to block the final green light on the controversial Nordstream 2 gas pipeline.