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Wider Europe Briefing: Unpacking The Latest EU Sanctions On Russia. Plus, Two Damning Reports On Moscow And Minsk.

EU ambassadors met in Brussels on May 10 and May 12 to formally review the European Commission's latest proposal on new sanctions targeting Russia. (illustrative photo)
EU ambassadors met in Brussels on May 10 and May 12 to formally review the European Commission's latest proposal on new sanctions targeting Russia. (illustrative photo)

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.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: the European Union's latest sanctions package targeting Moscow and two damning OSCE reports on Belarus and Russia.

Brief #1: What's In The EU's New Russia Sanctions Package?

What You Need To Know: EU ambassadors met in Brussels on May 10 and May 12 to formally review the European Commission's latest proposal on new sanctions targeting Russia. While it is unclear exactly how long it will take for the member states to agree, the working assumption is that the measures -- the 11th since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 -- will be adopted in the latter half of May. By EU standards, that would be pretty fast.

There are two reasons for the likely quick turnaround. First, the very same ambassadors have already been briefed by the European Commission about the content of the sanctions package in so-called "confessionals" since late April. There will be no surprises, and officials from EU member states are already familiar with the suggestions.

The second reason it's likely that the sanctions will be waved through with relative ease is that, ultimately, they are weak. In many respects, they follow the same pattern as the last five packages on Russia agreed by Brussels since last summer. They largely plug gaps and tighten screws, clarifying already-agreed provisions, and only introducing measures that won't damage the Russian economy in any significant ways.

The EU is not going after Russian gas here, nor its vast nuclear industry, including the state-owned behemoth Rosatom. Russia's lucrative diamond trade with the EU will also be left alone, and the bloc can still export goods such as lasers, cloud services, and insure Russian agricultural products.

Deep Background: One of the reasons why Brussels doesn't pursue more weighty energy sanctions is that Hungary and a few other Central and Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, have signaled that they aren't ready to agree on such moves. This is a position that will probably remain unchanged as long as energy prices remain high and risk spiking again in fall and winter of this year.

That said, in the new proposal, there are actually provisions that target Russian energy and could be approved by Budapest and other naysayers, as they are narrow and leave most countries untouched.

The new proposal states that the temporary derogation granted to Germany and Poland for the supply of crude oil from Russia through the northern section of the Druzhba oil pipeline should end. Berlin and Warsaw have said that this is acceptable, even though the former questioned the wisdom of the move as Kazakh oil, which is sometimes mixed with Russian oil, would still be allowed to flow through the pipeline.

The most significant new measure being proposed in the latest package is that Brussels is proposing to go after third countries that are knowingly circumventing EU sanctions. This is an attempt by the EU to implement so-called "secondary sanctions," which the United States has been using to great effect globally for some time already.

Drilling Down

  • There are no third countries currently in the EU's crosshairs, but the bloc's trade with countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus has skyrocketed since sanctions hit Moscow, with evidence suggesting that goods are making their way to Russia through them. The question, however, is how much Brussels -- if at all -- will ever use this proposed tool against third countries. In the initial discussions among EU ambassadors, both Germany and Italy cautioned that such a move could push countries closer to Moscow.
  • In the draft sanctions proposal, seen by RFE/RL, there are certain steps that Brussels should take before doling out any punishments. The text notes that "before including a third country on the list of countries concerned by this measure, the [European] Union should inform and seek the views of the government of that country on the basis of the preliminary findings of the technical analysis and its intended remedial action." In EU speak, that means the bloc will take a gentle approach against third country offenders, at least at first.
  • Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the proposal is the possible sanctioning of eight Chinese military companies that the bloc considers to have helped the Kremlin's war machine. It would be the first time the EU would target Chinese firms in the context of the Ukrainian war, and Beijing has already reacted furiously to the news. In the end, it could still be a bridge too far for some EU member states, with many of them very wary of antagonizing China.
  • Other measures included in the latest sanctions proposal are: a prohibition on selling intellectual property rights to Russia; and RT Balkans will have its broadcasting license in the EU suspended, following a host of other RT channels meeting the same fate; trucks registered in Russia that transport goods by road in the EU will be banned from doing so; and the same goes for the import of steel products from third countries, if the shipments contain components from Russia.
  • As always, there will be additional people and entities subjected to EU asset freezes and visa bans. The latest package includes 72 people and 29 companies -- mostly politicians the bloc deems to have been involved in the deportation of Ukrainian children, military officials, and then journalists and media companies that are accused of spreading propaganda.
  • If adopted, a grand total of 1,571 people and 241 companies will be sanctioned by the EU. However, officials familiar with the negotiations but who aren't authorized to speak on the record noted that Hungary has expressed reservations about three of the 72 new people listed for sanctioning and will aim to have them removed before it can sign off on the package.

Brief #2: In The OSCE, Russia And Belarus Have Never Been So Unpopular

What You Need To Know: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is currently the only relevant political organization in Europe in which both Belarus and Russia remain members. While there is no real momentum to kick out the pair from the Vienna-based club, a considerable majority of the 57 member states have turned increasingly hostile toward the two countries. This has manifested itself in the invocation of the organization's so-called Moscow Mechanism twice this spring, named after it was established in the Russian capital back in 1991.

The mechanism allows the OSCE to establish an ad hoc mission of independent experts to investigate a particular question or problem, often related to human rights abuses in the territory of the OSCE, and then file a detailed report of the findings. While the reports with its recommendations are nonbinding, they are considered relevant by the wider international political community and tend to be widely cited both in political debates and referred to in international tribunals.

Under the mechanism, an OSCE member state can request that a mission is created to investigate something on its own territory, but the more common invocation is when at least 10 OSCE members request that the Moscow Mechanism should be triggered to allow for a mission in a fellow member state.

Since the mechanism was established in 1991, it has been used sparingly -- only 14 times. However, since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine 15 months ago, it has been invoked four times -- including two recent investigations and reports, one looking at the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and the second looking at the situation in Belarus since November 2020.

Deep Background: The OSCE report looking at the deportation of Ukrainian children was presented in Vienna on May 4 after a record 45 OSCE member states agreed to invoke the mechanism. This came after the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March announced that it had issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Commissioner for Children Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for unlawfully transporting Ukrainian children to Russia and Kremlin-controlled territories in Ukraine -- actions that the court believes could constitute war crimes.

The OSCE report goes even further in its allegations by concluding that the "practice of the forcible transfer and/or deportation of Ukrainian children to the temporarily occupied territories and to the territory of the Russian Federation may amount to a crime against humanity."

The report also notes that the mission "has not been able to ascertain the exact number of children thus deported, [although] it is clear that these numbers are measured in several thousands." It also notes that "except for few instances when the transportation of children could be justified due to imminent threat to life owing to ongoing armed conflict, the Mission has been able to establish with certainty that by and large the deportation of children cannot be qualified as voluntary" -- a claim that the Kremlin has been repeating constantly.

Drilling Down

  • When discussed during the OSCE Permanent Council session in Vienna on May 4, the Russian delegation dismissed the report, noting that it presented information from "dubious sources," drew "unpleasant conclusions," and relied on "misinformation." A Russian delegate at the meeting also added that the Moscow Mechanism "has long outlived its usefulness and does not respond [to] modern realities."
  • Just as Russia refused to cooperate with the rapporteurs of the report on the forced transportation of Ukrainian children, Minsk dismissed any call for assistance on the report about the human rights situation in the country. In fact, the rapporteur was not welcomed in the country and had to settle for interviewing people in Warsaw and Vilnius.
  • The Belarus report focuses on the 2022 legislative and constitutional reforms, which, according to the document, means that "the Belarusian government now has a full arsenal of legislation designed to hinder any form of opposition," with the paper referring to new criminal and administrative offenses, increased liability for vaguely defined acts, extension of the death penalty, restricted access to political rights to Belarusians in exile, and limited freedom of assembly and association.
  • All this put together, according to the rapporteur, could be described as "politically motivated repression," with one of the main results being a high number of political prisoners in the country. The text states that, as of April 18, there are at least 1,486 political prisoners in Belarus.
  • Perhaps most eye-catching was Hungary's lack of support for the Moscow Mechanism on Belarus, making it the only EU member state not to support the measure.
  • And when Sweden, on behalf of the EU, delivered a statement on the Belarus report when it was presented in Vienna on May 11, Hungary didn't sign the statement. The EU-26 text noted, among other things, that "it is the Belarusian authorities and the Belarusian leadership that bear the sole responsibility for the appalling human rights situation, which is meticulously described in this report." So far, Budapest has offered no explanation for its stance but has previously noted that it doesn't want to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Looking Ahead

The highlight of this week will be the summit of the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrial nations on May 19-21 in Hiroshima. There will be symbolism aplenty as the Japanese city, known for being the first military target of a nuclear bomb in human history, hosts Western leaders just as Ukrainian forces are stepping up shelling to dislodge the Russian military near the city of Zaporizhzhya, home of Europe's largest nuclear power plant.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recently said that the general situation in the area near the plant "is becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous." The talks will otherwise focus on sending arms to Kyiv, with reports that more countries might follow the United Kingdom in supplying long-range cruise missiles.

On May 16, the EU's culture ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss the state of play of the European Media Freedom Act, which was presented by the European Commission last year. The act, which arguably is the most ambitious and comprehensive legislative proposal concerning media in the EU, would mean that national governments would be banned from interfering with editorial independence and will have to be more transparent about how public funds are allocated to media companies.

Most EU member states are wary of Brussels trying to seize the initiative in an area that they regard as an exclusive national competence, and many prospective EU countries are watching the fate of this act with great interest as Brussels is often very vocal about media freedom issues in candidate countries.

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.