EU leaders weigh new sanctions on Russia amid 'series of attacks'

Baltic and central European leaders said on Thursday that EU members must unite behind new economic sanctions against Russia

A view shows Russian warships on sunset ahead of the Navy Day parade in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea July 27, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/ALEXEY PAVLISHAK)
A view shows Russian warships on sunset ahead of the Navy Day parade in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea July 27, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/ALEXEY PAVLISHAK)

The European Union is under assault from Russia on multiple fronts and must unite behind new economic sanctions, Baltic and central European leaders said on Thursday, with Lithuania citing a risk of possible Russian military strikes from Belarus.

The warnings at an EU summit were some of the most direct in recent weeks as the United States and its NATO allies seek to deter any possible Russian attack on Ukraine and reduce Moscow's margin for a surprise. Many NATO allies are also EU member states.

"We really are facing a series of attacks. I see them all as associated," Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins told reporters, listing what he said was the weaponization of Middle East migrants on Belarus' borders with the EU, artificially high prices for Russian natural gas, and Russian disinformation.

Ukraine remains the main flashpoint between Russia and the West. Washington says Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine's borders, possibly for an invasion. Moscow says it has a right to move its troops around its own territory as it sees fit but says the maneuvers are purely defensive.

EU leaders will warn of "massive consequences" if Russia were to invade Ukraine, according to a draft final summit statement seen by Reuters. The United States and Britain have taken a similar stance.

 A migrant from Syria is taken by Polish border guards in the forest after being rescued with her brother by activists near the country's border with Belarus, near the town of Siemiatycze, Poland. (credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS) A migrant from Syria is taken by Polish border guards in the forest after being rescued with her brother by activists near the country's border with Belarus, near the town of Siemiatycze, Poland. (credit: MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)

The Kremlin denies the West's accusations against it, including any plan to invade Ukraine. It says it has legitimate security interests in the region and on Wednesday handed proposals to the United States that NATO should not expand eastwards or place new weapons systems near Russia's borders.

Prime Minister Micheal Martin of Ireland, a neutral country outside NATO, said any disputes with Moscow should be resolved by "peaceful means."

'DANGEROUS SITUATION'

But Russia's Baltic neighbors attacked what they see as Moscow's attempts to blur the line between peace and war.

"We are probably facing the most dangerous situation in the last 30 years, I am talking about not only Ukraine but the eastern flank of NATO," said Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, a day after EU leaders held a summit with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics in Brussels.

He cited fears that Russia might integrate Belarus, which borders Poland and two Baltic states, into its military systems and use its territory "as a possible platform to attack neighboring countries."

Any coordinated EU sanctions will likely depend on Germany, whose new center-left chancellor Olaf Scholz has taken a tougher line than his center-right predecessor, Angela Merkel.

However Berlin would still be torn over whether to risk Russian natural gas supplies to its businesses and households this winter by standing up to Moscow, diplomats said.

Germany, France and Ukraine sought on Wednesday to revive the "Normandy" format, a diplomatic peace initiative with Russia to end a conflict in eastern Ukraine pitting pro-Russian separatists against Kyiv's forces.

"We will underscore again that the inviolability of borders is an important basis for peace in Europe, and that together we will do everything to ensure that this inviolability endures," Scholz told reporters at his first EU summit as German leader.

The West imposed economic sanctions on Russia in 2014 over its annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. The measures targeted Russia's energy, banking and defense sectors.

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa suggested that one option for the EU in its standoff with Moscow might be to prevent the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany from becoming operational.