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Wider Europe Briefing: What Exactly Is The EU Sanctioning In Russia? And What's The Future Of The Eastern Partnership?

(Left to right) Foreign ministers Peter Szijjarto of Hungary, Jeyhun Bayramov of Azerbaijan, Pekka Haavisto of Finland, and Tobias Billstrom of Sweden attend an EU meeting with the Eastern Partnership countries in Brussels on December 12.
(Left to right) Foreign ministers Peter Szijjarto of Hungary, Jeyhun Bayramov of Azerbaijan, Pekka Haavisto of Finland, and Tobias Billstrom of Sweden attend an EU meeting with the Eastern Partnership countries in Brussels on December 12.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods. To subscribe, please click here.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: the content of the EU's ninth sanctions package on Russia and the future of the EU's Eastern Partnership program.

Brief #1: The EU's Ninth Russia Sanctions Package: Who Is Being Targeted And How Strong Is It?

What You Need To Know: The European Union this week is set to agree on its ninth sanctions package on Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in late February. The new package, presented by the European Commission to EU member states' ambassadors on December 7, will reportedly target media outlets, people close to the Kremlin, and about 2 billion euros ($2.1 billion) worth of EU-Russia trade.

There is hope that it will be finalized when EU foreign ministers gather in Brussels for their monthly meeting on December 12. EU member states have already debated the sanction texts three times and, while Hungary has voiced skepticism about the role of sanctions in helping to end the war, Budapest will likely give the thumbs-up eventually, as the new measures don't target the Russian energy sector.

Deep Background: In truth, this package is rather weak. EU diplomats I've spoken to say that it appears that Brussels has run out of ideas and is now largely focusing on the nitty-gritty of closing loopholes from previous rounds.

One of those loopholes will be a prohibition on Bulgaria -- starting February 5, 2023 -- from transferring or selling petroleum products that are processed from Russian crude oil to other EU member states. It isn't clear if Bulgaria will be OK with this.

Perhaps the biggest economic sanction in this ninth round will be a proposed prohibition on new EU investments in the Russian mining sector. But, as always, there are exemptions. Quite a few minerals are excluded from the ban, such as aluminum, iron ore, nickel, and copper -- making the measure much weaker in reality.

Drilling Down

  • In the new measures, about 200 Russian people and entities are set to have their assets frozen and be banned from entering the EU. It is a big and eclectic mix of people: parliamentary deputies, including the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova; an assortment of governors and media personalities; members of the family of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov; and people who, according to the EU, are responsible for the "illegal transportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and their adoption by Russian families."
  • Among the entities listed, there are also various paramilitary and white supremacist outfits linked to the already sanctioned Vagner group of military mercenaries currently fighting in Ukraine. The armed forces of Russia are also targeted, including the national guard, the navy, land and airborne forces, and the military intelligence agency (GRU). Banks such as the Russian Regional Development Bank, the Credit Bank of Moscow, and Dalnevostochny Bank are included, as well as political parties such as the Kremlin-loyal United Russia party, the Communist Party, and the Kremlin-friendly A Just Russia and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
  • More Russian media companies might also be hit by the new sanctions. The EU has already banned outfits such as RT and Sputnik, but is now targeting NTV Mir, Rossia-1, REN-TV, Pervyi Kanal, and Roskomnadzor, the Russian state agency responsible for overseeing media. The draft legal text introducing these sanctions, which has been seen by RFE/RL, notes that these Russian media outlets "are essential and instrumental in bringing forward and supporting the aggression against Ukraine, and for the destabilization of its neighboring countries" and that such actions also pose "a significant and direct threat to the [European] Union's public order and security."
  • This should mean that the bloc will impose restrictive measures to suspend the broadcasting activities of these media outlets within the EU, and those broadcasting from outside. There is, however, not a complete ban on their activities in the EU. The legal text stipulates that the new measures "do not prevent the media outlets and their staff from carrying out activities in the union other than broadcasting, such as research and interviews."
  • Perhaps the most important -- but also the most complicated -- part of the package is a 120-page list of products that can no longer be exported to Russia. Very detailed and technical in its descriptions, the list includes items that could contribute to the Russian military effort, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (including toy drones), generators, hard drives, IT components, night-vision and radio-navigation equipment, cameras, lasers, lenses, and various underwater gear.

Brief #2: Is There Still A Future For The EU's Eastern Partnership?

What You Need To Know: On December 12, the foreign ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine will meet (via video link) with their 27 EU counterparts in Brussels for a scheduled three-hour "Eastern Partnership (EaP) foreign ministers meeting." Few concrete outcomes are expected -- and the question likely on the minds of many politicians and bureaucrats is whether the Eastern Partnership has outlived its purpose.

Created back in 2009 after a Polish-Swedish initiative, the EaP aimed to bring six former Soviet republics closer to the bloc without the explicit offer of future membership.

Since then, the goalposts have moved several times, complicating the initiative's original focus. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February led to Brussels taking the historic decision in June to recognize both Moldova and Ukraine as EU candidate countries, plus selecting a slightly behind Georgia as a potential candidate.

But the Eastern Partnership has also seen two other members -- Armenia and Azerbaijan -- waging war against each other in 2020, with substantial clashes still occurring this year. And Belarus suspended its participation in the partnership in 2021 after it was sanctioned by the EU for its brutal crackdown on people protesting election results widely viewed as falsified.

Yet despite the obvious contradictions and complications of treating the six countries as a mini-bloc, Brussels will most likely persist with the Eastern Partnership for now.

Deep Background: If you ask officials from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine privately about the EaP, you probably won't be bowled over with praise. Yes, they are happy about what the partnership has delivered previously, in terms of visa-free travel for their citizens and association agreements with the bloc that include free-trade deals.

But after having spent the last few years pushing for even closer relations, officials from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are quietly expressing concern that the Eastern Partnership will get in the way of their newly won EU accession statuses. And the idea of being grouped together with the authoritarian regimes of Azerbaijan and Belarus isn't exactly appealing either.

As these things normally tend to work, the officials' public positions are a little more moderate. According to Brussels bureaucrats I have spoken to, officials from the Eastern Partnership countries have apparently given the go-ahead to continue with the current setup.

And in a discussion paper ahead of the December 12 meeting -- authored by the Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania, and seen by RFE/RL -- it states that, "despite openly voiced skepticisms," Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are "assessing what could be the added value of the EaP in the accession process." The paper concludes that "the EaP remains a relevant framework, which has not exhausted its full regional potential and can continue to have a purpose for all partners."

Drilling Down

  • So, what does this all mean? Brussels has urged the three countries to come up with suggestions for how the partnership can be used in the future to prepare them for EU membership. Don't be surprised if there are more proposals from Brussels about physical infrastructure connecting the Eastern partners with the EU. Or perhaps we might see the trio of countries getting more access to the EU's digital market, for instance by enjoying the same "roam-like-home" provisions that EU citizens currently do.
  • As always, Russia is the elephant in the room. The country is hardly mentioned in summit declarations or conclusions. The aforementioned discussion paper points out that the partners all "share common threats, especially in the security domain whose source is mainly Russia's malign activity." So it's very likely that the EU will propose more assistance, money, and resources to combat Russian disinformation and to boost cybersecurity.
  • And then there will be the call for the EU to do more to defuse conflicts in the region. Look no further than European Council President Charles Michel's recent efforts to facilitate dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with another Brussels meeting between the two countries' leaders in the pipeline. Also expect the bloc, before the winter holidays, to extend the monitoring mission on the Armenian side of the border, which was agreed back in October.

While the EU, unlike Turkey and Russia, is seen as more of an honest broker by both Baku and Yerevan, questions do remain as to whether the bloc really can guarantee the safety of the people in Azerbaijani's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

  • And then, what to do about Belarus? There is still hope that Minsk will return to the fold, hopefully with a more democratic leadership. At the last Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels in 2021, there was an empty chair representing the country. Officials in Brussels are considering whether to fill that chair with a representative from Belarus's democratic opposition for the next big meeting.
  • It isn't clear when the next Eastern Partnership summit might be. Normally, they are held every other year, so there should be one in 2023. There is a push for Stockholm to host it during Sweden's stint as president of the Council of the European Union in the first half of next year, but the Swedish diplomats I have spoken to are less sure, saying that a summit without any concrete "deliverables" wouldn't do much justice to the Eastern Partnership at the moment.

Looking Ahead

Kosovo is expected to officially hand in its EU membership application in Brussels on December 15, just ahead of the EU summit that starts later that day. Member states are likely "to take note" of the application, although the big question remains of how to proceed with five member states still not recognizing Kosovo's independence.

There is more movement in the EU-Western Balkans relationship. Bosnia-Herzegovina is expected to be recognized as an official EU candidate country. This might happen either when the bloc's Europe ministers meet on December 13 in Brussels to discuss and adopt so-called "conclusions" on EU enlargement, or it might be announced when EU leaders convene for a summit in the Belgian capital on December 15-16.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

To subscribe, click here.