Greece, EU Compromise Over Russian Sanctions, Tough Talk Toned Down

BRUSSELS — The European Union extended by six months an existing set of sanctions against Russian and pro-Russia separatist officials because of the continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and was planning further action, officials said.

“We have shown that the EU is ready to take further measures,” EU Foreign Affairs chief Federica Mogherini said.

The new radical left-wing government in Greece didn’t fall immediately in line with plans for further actions against Russia and insisted a stronger statement against Moscow should be toned down first.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said there was no direct reference to Russian responsibility for the new developments in Ukraine in the joint statement and “the main thing that we wanted removed, and over which there was a two-hour battle, was the proposal for new sanctions.”

Instead of mentioning the threat of new economic sanctions, the joint statement only mentioned “any appropriate action” was on the table for the Feb. 12 EU summit of government leaders. It was wording seen as a concession to those seeking to keep dialogue going with Russia.

France and some others said that while firmness was essential, room for negotiation had to be kept open.

Kotzias said Greece believes new sanctions won’t bear fruit, and questioned whether the EU wanted to crush Russia, “resulting in pain for the whole of Europe.”

“Sanctions haven’t worked anywhere, except for countries in the process of collapse,” Kotzias said. “Also, when you impose sanctions, you should know what consequences they will have. For example, the sanctions created financial problems for Greece.”

Mogherini said that on top of the decision to extend the first batch of sanctions currently affecting some 130 people, the EU was also preparing a list of new officials to be put on the visa ban and asset freeze program, which could be confirmed as soon as Feb. 9.

“We hope that this can help in putting pressure, in particular on Russia, to make positive steps and prevent the negative steps that we have seen in the recent days,” Mogherini said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “one might reasonably conclude” that the U.S. is considering additional sanctions on Russia, though he said there were no specific plans to announce at this time. He said the White House was in close contact with European counterparts.

Last March, the EU imposed the first visa bans and asset freezes against officials linked to Russia’s annexation of southern Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The measures were due to expire this March, and the Jan. 29 decision will extend them until at least September.

Pressure for more action has been building since last weekend’s attacks on Mariupol, when rockets crashed into a densely populated eastern district, killing 30 and wounding several dozen. International observers said a preliminary assessment indicated the attack had been mounted from rebel-held areas.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the EU has steadily increased restrictive measures. In July, the EU imposed economic sanctions which, combined with the drop in oil prices, have stung Moscow.

Meanwhile, Russia has extended its walkout from Europe’s human rights watchdog after again losing its right to vote over the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, meeting in the French city of Strasbourg on Jan. 28, voted to renew sanctions against Russia at least until April. Russian delegate Alexei Pushkov said Jan. 29 that his delegation’s walkout would continue the rest of the year.