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EU, U.S. Fire Opening Salvo In Sanctions Conflict With Russia

According to one analyst, the EU is moving surprisingly quickly and a strong consensus is emerging on the next level of possible sanctions, while a third, "massive" level of sanctions remains on the table.
BRUSSELS -- One day after Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula held a disputed referendum on joining the Russian Federation, both the European Union and the United States have moved to apply targeted sanctions against Russian and Crimean officials.

EU foreign ministers on March 17 adopted a strongly worded statement condemning Russian actions in Ukraine but opted for limited punitive measures, slapping travel restrictions and an assets freeze on just 21 Russian and Crimean politicians accused of undermining or threatening Ukraine's "sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The targeted officials include breakaway Crimean leaders Sergei Aksyonov and Vladimir Konstantinov; Ukrainian naval commander Deniz Berezovskiy, who has sworn an oath to Crimea's breakaway armed forces; and Russian lawmaker Sergei Mironov, who initiated a State Duma bill allowing Crimea's possible annexation.

Also on March 17, an executive order by U.S. President Barack Obama came into force, freezing the assets of seven Russian officials, including Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, Russian presidential aide Sergei Glazyev, and three Russian lawmakers.

Earlier, the United States imposed similar sanctions on Crimean leaders Aksyonov and Konstantinov, as well as on deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his former chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk.

Limited, But Much More Implied

The EU's targeted sanctions were far more limited than some earlier media reports initially indicated. A draft list of some 120 to 130 names, including leading executives of Russian state-controlled companies such as Rosneft and Gazprom, had been leaked and widely reported to be under consideration.

Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, says the limited first round of targeted sanctions and the leaked list are warnings to Russia that the list can be quickly augmented.

"The more interesting aspect is that, of course, there was the original list of 120 [people]. And that was the real list the Russians were meant to see, because that's a very comprehensive list that includes almost everybody except Mr. [Vladimir] Putin himself," Techau says.

"The Russians now know that these people are being pondered. And that's the important message. Not so much the 20 [or so] that are now on the final list -- because that list, of course, can be expanded in future steps."

In comments to RFE/RL, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek also said an expansion of the sanctions list could come quickly. "I understand this as an initial set of names, and I wouldn't say that the list can't be extended -- even during the next meeting of the council," he said.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter that EU officials were "discussing readiness for further measures against Russia if there is no de-escalation."

'Massive' Sanctions Await

In addition to the targeted sanctions, the EU heads of government summit on March 20-21 is expected to consider canceling a Russia-EU summit set for Sochi in May. Techau says this is another signal that pressure can be ratcheted up quickly.

"There's the interesting thing of the EU-Russia summit, which is a regular format. The EU does two summits a year with Russia. It is the only country it does that with," the analyst explains. "And it is a very clear sign that it really wants to kind of approach or further diplomatic isolation and start with a relatively, again, at a relatively small scale."

Techau says the EU is moving surprisingly quickly and that he believes a strong consensus is emerging on the next level of possible sanctions, while a third, "massive" level of sanctions remains on the table.

"Compared to what the EU has in its arsenal, I think this is all relatively measured, but shouldn't be mistaken for weakness. I think there is a very interesting, relatively strong resolve on behalf of the Europeans within that second level of sanctions," he says.

"The third level, of course, that we are talking about potentially for in the future, which are really massive economic and financial restrictions on Russia -- we're not there yet. But within that second tier of sanctions, I think the EU has a very strong resolve, despite the fact that some countries voice their concerns."