BRUSSELS (AP) — Shocked by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to deploy troops to separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, world leaders moved quickly Tuesday to impose as forceful a response as possible in hopes of averting a full-blown war in Europe.
Germany made the first big move, taking steps to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia — a lucrative deal long sought by Moscow, but criticized by the U.S. for increasing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies.
The rest of the European Union soon followed, with a first set of sanctions taking aim at Duma legislators who voted in favor of recognizing separatist regions in Ukraine, as well as several Russian officials. They also sought to limit Moscow’s access to EU capital and financial markets.
“This package of sanctions … will hurt Russia and it will hurt a lot,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Paris.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went as far as naming five Russian banks and three wealthy individuals who the UK hit with sanctions on Tuesday.
The United States was moving closer to sanctions too, with the White House calling Russia’s troop deployments an “invasion” — a red line that President Joe Biden has said would result in heavy U.S. sanctions against Moscow. Action could follow later Tuesday.
And if Putin pushes further into Ukraine, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg insisted the West would move in lockstep. “If Russia decides once again to use force against Ukraine, there will be even stronger sanctions, even a higher price to pay,” he said.
The West insisted Putin’s bold moves in Ukraine violated countless international agreements and since diplomacy has failed, it was time to move towards action.
Western powers have long made clear the fate of Ukraine wasn’t worth a direct military confrontation with Russia and the potential of a world war, so sanctions were the only, limited, option to channel their anger.
“No lows too low, no lies too blatant, no red lines too red to cross,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said in summing up the political disgust felt by nations from Europe to North America and the democracies hugging Russia’s borders in Asia like Japan and South Korea.
However, Putin continued to knock the world off-kilter with a strategy where confusion about the true extent of an invasion, which would automatically kick in major sanctions, remained unclear and debatable.
Russia said it was sending what it called “peacekeepers” into eastern Ukraine, but EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stressed they were “troops” on sovereign Ukrainian territory.
“I wouldn’t say that’s a fully-fledged invasion, but Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil,” Borrell said.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace didn’t mince words. “Russia has already invaded Ukraine. They did it in 2014, occupied illegally Crimea and Donbas. This is a further invasion of their sovereign territory,” Wallace said.
Whatever the description, the latest developments were enough to force the 27-nation bloc into a mode of high alert, and the EU’s foreign ministers stressed the sanctions announced Tuesday were done in close consultation with the United States and other Western allies.
They stopped short of the “massive” package threatened by the EU and Washington for a full military invasion into national territory that Kyiv still controls.
“The way we respond will define us for the generations to come,” Simonyte said. Too much too soon, though, could also hurt the international response, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said.
Britain’s Johnson was thinking in the same vein. “This the first tranche, the first barrage of what we are prepared to do and we hold further sanctions at readiness to be deployed,” Johnson told British lawmakers.
“This is a first step,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. ”We have more ammunition.”
Hopes are dwindling that a major conflict can be averted. Putin’s directive came hours after he recognized the two Ukrainian separatist regions, setting up Russian military support and antagonizing Western leaders who regard it as a breach of world order.
Putin has blamed NATO for the current crisis and called the U.S.-led alliance an existential threat to Russia.
The global condemnation came amid rising skirmishes in the eastern regions of Ukraine that Western powers believe Russia could use as a pretext for an attack on the Europe-leaning democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit.
NATO member Turkey, which has close relations with both Ukraine and Russia, criticized Moscow’s decision to recognize the independence of the regions in eastern Ukraine.
“We consider this decision by Russia as being unacceptable,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “We reiterate our calls to the parties to respect common sense and international law.”
China, a traditional ally of Russia, sounded a cautious note, calling for restraint and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Washington could be much more straightforward. The White House issued an executive order to restrict investment and trade in the separatist regions, and additional measures — likely sanctions — were to be announced Tuesday. Those sanctions are independent of what Washington has prepared in the event of a Russian invasion, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
With an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, the U.S. has warned that Moscow has already decided to invade. Still, Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a meeting brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron in a last-ditch effort to avoid war.
AP reporters from around the world contributed.