BRUSSELS – Among the first countries to aid Ukraine with military gear when Russia invaded, Greece’s backing of European Union sanctions will cost residents big time and may have to be reassessed, said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
“We have put together a massive package of sanctions, unlike anything we’ve done in the past. And these sanctions actually do bite,” Mitsotakis said in an interview with CNN’s Nic Robertson, adding that “all the gains that Russia has made over the past decade could be eradicated within a year.”
“When it comes to energy, we need to be very careful so that whatever measures we take don’t end up hurting us for that they hurt Russia,” Mitsotakis said.
“We certainly all need to reassess our growth forecasts, we’re faced with significant inflationary pressures as a result of the war and energy costs are really hurting,” he also said.
“At the end of the day, as much as we have an allegiance to support Ukraine, we also have an allegiance to our citizens to make sure that they do not suffer more than they can actually bear,” he said.
The sanctions, which bar Russian airlines from EU member states, mean Greece will likely lose a big tourism market in Russians if the war and the penalties at President Vladimir Putin’s administration go into the summer.
But the EU, relying on Russia for up to 40 percent of its energy, exempted two key Russian banks from being barred from the SWIFT system of international bank transfers, providing Putin with 40 percent of Russia’s Gross Domestic Product.
Some critics in the EU of giving him that lifeline said that the bloc’s sanctions don’t go far enough and that the reluctance to stop buying oil and gas from Russia is funding Putin’s War and killing civilians.
There are some 150,000 ethnic Greeks in the besieged city of Mariupol and Mitsotakis pulled back after declaring “full solidarity” with Ukraine and said Greece would not send, as Ukraine requested, anti-aircraft weapons.
At the same time that Mitsotakis’ government has been trying to keep out refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, sub-Saharan Africa and other regions, it is welcoming those from Ukraine.
Mitsotakis also said that all NATO countries should abide by the sanctions but Turkey isn’t and is not being penalized in any way for that, and he said that EU countries wound “need to do more because the numbers are just going to be overwhelming,” some 3 million Ukrainian refugees likely coming.
HERE THEY COME
“We were at the forefront of the refugee crisis of the past. So we’re very sensitive in terms of making sure that we can provide a safe place for Ukrainian refugees,” Mitsotakis said.
He didn’t mention criticism and claims from human rights groups, activists and major media reports that said his government is pushing back refugees and migrants across land and sea borders, some to their deaths, which he denied.
The EU has been split over Russian energy in its otherwise rare unanymity – with great reluctance from some countries, including Cyprus saying it could break the airline ban if Turkey gets more tourists.
During the first month of war, EU nations imposed tough measures targeting Russia’s economy and financial system as well as President Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs.
Unlike the US, they have so far spared Russian fossil fuels, highlighting the EU’s reliance on the country’s oil, natural gas and coal to keep homes warm and the wheels of industry turning.
“We are not at war with ourselves,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at the summit in Brussels, where sanctions and energy were key topics. “Sanctions must always have a much bigger impact on the Russian side than on ours.”
He reflected the position of EU nations like Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. They are running up against other member states situated closer to Russia that want tougher action now.
“As long as we are purchasing energy from Russia, we are financing the war, and this is the big problem that we have,” Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin said, joined by Baltic leaders in demanding swift action.
“We have to continue to isolate Putin’s economy – Russia’s economy – to stop the money flowing into the war machine,” Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins told reporters. “The most logical place to move forward is in oil and coal.”
The EU imports 90 percenet of the natural gas used to generate electricity, heat homes and supply industry, with Russia supplying almost 40 percent of EU gas and a quarter of its oil.
Instead of an embargo, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has proposed slashing the bloc’s dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year. The EU is in talks with the US to ensure extra deliveries of liquefied natural gas and have also started discussions with other suppliers.
Speaking to the EU leaders via video, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked them for working together to support Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia, including Germany’s decision to block Russia from delivering natural gas to Europe through the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN
But he lamented that these steps were not taken earlier, saying there was a chance Russia would have thought twice about invading.
He then appealed to the EU leaders to move quickly on Ukraine’s application to join the bloc. “Here I ask you, do not delay. Please,” Zelenskyy said. “For us this is a chance,” he also added.
Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that European nations that don’t want to work with Russia on energy should “just tell their citizens who is destroying their prosperity and how. We will cooperate with those who are interested in ensuring their own energy security.”
In 2021, the EU’s imports of Russian goods were worth 158.5 billion euros ($174.44 billion,) with mineral fuels accounting for 62 percent, or 98.9 billion euros ($108.85 billion,) according to the European Commission.
Karins said the Ukraine war was a prime example where morals should trump money. Despite Latvia’s “high dependency on Russian oil and gas,” businesses support a halt to trade in these goods, he said.
“They’re telling to me sanctions are a necessity because we have to stop Putin’s regime,” he said. “It’s just money. If you’re alive, if your infrastructure is fine, you can re-earn the money.”
Greenpeace has accused the European Union of bankrolling Russia’s war by continuing to purchase its energy supplies for now.
“Fossil fuels have a history of being connected with conflict and war – wherever they come from, governments must phase them out as quickly as possible, not look for new suppliers,” Greenpeace EU Director Jorgo Riss said.
But Dutch Premier Mark Rutte signaled that EU countries were still too divided over the question of energy sanctions against Russia to produce an agreement on the matter at the summit. He stressed the four sets of sanctions that the EU has already imposed against Russia over the past month.
“We will discuss sanctions; I don’t think we will decide on sanctions,” Rutte told reporters. “Don’t forget that the sanctions package in place at the moment is by far the toughest package I’ve seen in my lifetime as a politician.”
The EU similarly earlier refused to go along with Mitsotakis’ demand for sanctions against Turkey for its plans to hunt for oil and gas off Greek islands, the opposition to the idea led by Germany, home to 2.774 million people of Turkish heritage and arms supplier to both Turkey and Greece.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)