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As Ukraine begs for greater action, the EU imposes sanctions on Putin

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Vice-President In Charge of Foreign Policy Josep Borrell give a joint media statement on Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Brussels, Belgium February 24, 2022. Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool via REUTERS

On Friday, EU member states agreed to freeze Russian President Vladimir Putin’s and his foreign minister’s European assets, as Ukraine’s leader appealed for harsher measures to punish Russia’s invasion of his nation.

The news: The action against Putin and his top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, came as EU envoys agreed on a new round of sanctions, their second this week, aimed at Russia’s elite and preventing 70 per cent of the country’s financial system from operating.

  • “We are now listing President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov as well,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said as she joined her EU counterparts to agree on the new sanctions.
  • “They are responsible for the deaths of innocent people in Ukraine, and for trampling on the international system. We, as Europeans, do not accept that.”
  • Although the Russian leaders may not have vast assets in Europe, a senior EU diplomat said the move against them individually was “a politically important signal.”
  • Putin now joins only two other international leaders sanctioned by the EU, according to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
  • The new set of sanctions might be followed by a third, according to Borrell, but only if necessary.
High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell and Croatian Prime Minister Andrew Plenkovic during a Special meeting of the European Council in light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, in Brussels, Belgium, 24 February 2022. Olivier Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS

What’s going on: As Moscow’s soldiers marched on Kyiv earlier on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Europe to act more promptly and decisively in putting sanctions on Moscow, accusing western partners of politicking.

  • “You still can stop this aggression. You have to act swiftly,” he said, adding that banning Russians from entering the EU, cutting Moscow off from the SWIFT global interbank payments system and an oil embargo should all be on the table.
  • With the decision of EU ministers on comprehensive sanctions, the EU has joined the US and other Western countries in limiting Russia’s access to crucial technologies and financing.
  • The EU’s sanctions will also target Russian elites and make it more difficult for diplomats to travel, but the group has decided not to slash Russian energy imports or cut Russia off from SWIFT, despite opposition from Germany and Italy, among others.
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks as he arrives for an emergency European Union (EU) summit at The European Council Building, on the situation in Ukraine after Russia launched an invasion in Brussels, Belgium February 24, 2022. John Thys/Pool via REUTERS

What’s important: Taking Russia out of SWIFT remained an option, but only as a “financial nuclear weapon” of last resort, according to French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who is holding a meeting of EU counterparts in Paris to examine the economic consequences.

  • Some EU countries – but not France – are wary of such a move, he said, and the European Central Bank is due to issue an analysis “in the coming hours” on the implications.
  • Baerbock said the SWIFT option risked hurting individuals, such as those trying to send money to relatives in Russia, “whereas those people who are responsible for the bloodshed will still be able to do their bank business”.
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