Rollover of measures occurs against backdrop of renewed Russian militarization on Ukraine’s border
The European Union has formally extended sanctions against Russia for another six months, the European Council said yesterday. The measures target Russia’s banking, energy, and defense sectors, and have been in place since July 31, 2014.
In a press conference on 13 December, EU Council President Donald Tusk said leaders would “unanimously prolong economic sanctions against Russia, given zero progress in implementation of the Minsk Agreements.” Minsk—a peace plan to end the conflict in Eastern Donbass—has been largely unsuccessful, with almost daily violations of the agreed ceasefire being committed by Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed rebels.
However the EU opted not to punish Russia with tougher sanctions, despite growing geopolitical tensions between Brussels and Moscow. Last month, Russia intercepted, fired on, and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels off the coast of Crimea, taking 24 sailors prisoner in the process.
The move sparked condemnation in both European capitals and Washington, who labeled it an act of “Russian aggression” and an “outrageous violation” of Ukrainian territory. Russia maintains that Kyiv was responsible for the incident, and the Ukrainian navy failed to follow protocol before sailing its ships through the Kerch Strait.
Against this backdrop, many EU officials are concerned about a major military build-up along Russia’s border with Ukraine in recent weeks. Ukrainian media reports reveal that large numbers of armored Russian infantry vehicles have been crossing into Russian-occupied Crimea. Satellite images also indicate that hundreds of Russian tanks have recently assembled along the border with Eastern Ukraine. Yesterday, eyewitnesses spotted a Russian missile frigate moving from Crimea in the direction of the Azov Sea.
Fears that Moscow may launch a fresh offensive in Ukraine have been heightened by a sharp uptick in Russian disinformation surrounding the conflict. Ukrainian Deputy Minister for Information Policy Dmytro Zolotukhin warned that pro-Russian media outlets are spreading fake reports of planned Ukrainian offensives against the ‘rebel republics’, including with the use of chemical weapons. Kyiv believes these reports are part of Moscow’s information warfare strategy, and are psychologically preparing its domestic population for an escalation of the Ukrainian conflict.
In response, President Petro Poroshenko has declared martial law in 10 of Ukraine’s 27 regions— those on the Black Sea, directly bordering Russia, and the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, where Russian troops are stationed. “Intelligence data speak of an extremely serious threat,” Poroshenko said in a televised address in November, while Ukraine UN Permanent Representative Volodymyr Yelchenko told a Security Council session that the ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk faced invasion.
Rising temperatures have prompted EU discussions over whether Moscow should face tougher sanctions. While the Baltic States, backed by Great Britain, Poland, and Sweden, have argued the EU should impose punitive new measures if Russia annexes more Ukrainian territory, German diplomatic sources have questioned whether new sanctions would be reasonable. The French foreign ministry is also reluctant at the idea.