AFP, January 24, 2022 — United States has ordered the families of its diplomats to leave Ukraine, as rising fears of a Russian invasion pushed Western officials to meet Monday in a bid to coordinate their response and compile a battery of sanctions against Moscow.
It comes as EU foreign ministers will on Monday seek to align their response with the US when Washington’s top diplomat Antony Blinken joins a meeting of his EU counterparts by videolink.
He will brief them on his talks on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva, where the two sides agreed to keep working to ease tensions but failed to secure a major breakthrough to calm the escalating crisis.
The West accuses Moscow of threatening a further incursion into its pro-Western neighbor by massing over 100,000 troops on its border. The Kremlin insists its forces are not there to invade.
As tensions ramped up Washington authorized on Sunday the “voluntary” departure of non-essential embassy staff and urged its citizens in the Eastern European country to “consider departing now” ahead of any possible Russian military action.
The United States has led a diplomatic push to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from attacking Ukraine and to marshall its allies to prepare swingeing economic punishment for Moscow if he does act.
Blinken has committed to provide a written response this week to Moscow after it laid down a series of security demands that would stop Ukraine joining NATO and roll back Washington’s influence in eastern Europe.
EU foreign ministers gathering in Brussels will look to sound out the United States over its plans as Europe frets it has been left on the sidelines of discussions about its own security arrangements.
Washington and EU have threatened Moscow with “massive consequences” if it sends in its forces — but getting consensus for hard-hitting measures among the bloc’s 27 nations is a complex task.
EU officials have been consulting with member states in a bid to draw up a raft of punishing sanctions in case Putin invades.
Meanwhile, Washington issued a travel advisory warning Americans to avoid all travel to Russia due to the situation “along the border with Ukraine” warning they could face “harassment”.
Foreign ministers are not expected to give approval to any options for sanctions on Monday — but one senior EU official insisted they could be imposed in a matter of “days” if needed.
“The reaction will be very quick, the reaction will be extremely clear,” the official said.
Another EU official working on the sanctions told AFP that Europe’s huge oil and gas imports were seen as possible leverage.
But one European diplomat said that complaints led by Germany appeared to have taken a proposal to sever Moscow from the global SWIFT payment system off the table.
Ukraine over the weekend took a swipe at Berlin’s refusal to supply arms to Kyiv and hesitation over SWIFT, accusing it of “encouraging Putin”.
Blinken, who was in Germany last week, insisted he had “no doubts” that the EU’s economic powerhouse was resolute over the crisis.
Britain, which left the EU at the end of 2020, ramped up the rhetoric with Moscow over the weekend by alleging it had information the Kremlin was seeking to install a “pro-Russian” leader in Kyiv.
The current fears of a Russian invasion follow Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Kyiv is already fighting a low-level conflict with Russian-backed rebels controlling a chunk of the east of the country that has claimed 13,000 lives in the past eight years.
Some within the EU fear it is being ignored in the current crisis as Moscow focuses on its talks with the US and NATO in a move reminiscent of the Cold War-era.
But there has been pushback, especially from eastern members, against a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron that the bloc should open its own security talks with Russia.
A draft statement from the foreign ministers seen by AFP is set to state that the EU will “actively and substantially contribute to discussions within the existing frameworks”. By Max Delany, Sylvie Lanteaume