Following Russia’s mobilisation and annexation of four Ukrainian regions, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced that EU members had agreed on additional sanctions against Russia, which “will be brought forward as soon as possible.” Political agreement on the eighth EU sanctions package is expected not later than at the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on October 17. Once the sanctions proposals are approved, the package will have to be formally endorsed by the European Council, which could happen at the next leaders’ summit scheduled for October 20-21. However, EU leaders could act even quicker and announce a breakthrough at their informal meeting on October 7 – the 70th birthday of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While discussions about the scope of the package are still ongoing, seven months into the war, certain parallels and patterns in the EU’s sanctions mechanism emerge. These can serve as a basis for extrapolation, rather than forecasting and speculation, of what the EU might target and why.
The EU will certainly combine individual and sectoral sanctions, as it has in all previous packages. The new package is also likely to corroborate the recent sanctions dynamics among EU member states. Like in previous rounds, Poland and the Baltic countries, particularly Estonia, are most vocal about sanctions. On the other side of the spectrum, Hungary is the most reluctant member state, which delayed the sixth package by several weeks and withdrew previously given assurances of support. This time prime minister Viktor Orbán called for lifting all sanctions before year’s end just one day after Borrell’s declaration of EU unity. Decision-making could take a little longer in Italy, too, due to the complexity of the new coalition government. Incoming Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has publicly committed to continuing solidarity with Ukraine, in an attempt to reassure Brussels and Kyiv, but the positions of her coalition partners Lega and Forza Italia could be less reliable.
The new package is primarily prompted by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s announcement of sham referenda in four partly occupied Ukrainian regions, but discussions had intensified already before when mass graves of civilians and a torture prison were discovered in the recently liberated town of Izyum. These pictures, following the rapid and unexpected advance of the Ukrainian army, resemble the horrors discovered after Russia’s sudden withdrawal from Bucha and other towns around Kyiv in April. Back then the international outcry had fostered EU unanimity to adopt the fifth package. Despite Orbán’s fence-sitting, the eighth package could therefore be adopted relatively swiftly.
Russia's annexation of Ukrainian regions
Broadly speaking, restrictive measures currently under discussion can be divided into controversial and non-controversial ones. The listing of illegitimate Russian-backed “officials” in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson and the extension of existing trade bans for luxury and high-tech goods would mirror previous sanctions and will not spark a lot of controversy in Brussels. The ban of diamond imports and stricter financial sanctions, such as the cut-off from SWIFT of all Russian banks, will meet stronger headwinds as they curtail certain member states’ interests.
Even longer discussions will revolve around price caps for oil and gas, as well as a potential ban of Russian nuclear fuels – an energy commodity that the EU has so far spared from sanctioning. One of the most controversial subjects is set to be the handling of short-term travel restrictions, where the Baltic states and Poland demand a more uniform EU approach in restricting travel, but Germany and others have pledged to keep their borders open for hundreds of thousands of young Russians fleeing conscription, who they will recognise as asylum seekers.
EU countries and their international allies could also agree to supply Ukraine with heavier weapons, such as German Leopard 2 and French Leclerc tanks, to repeat its blitz offensive from Kharkiv in Kherson. Pressure on the German and French government has mounted in recent weeks, prompting especially Berlin to deliver more howitzers and missile launchers. However, the inclusion of battle tanks deliveries in an EU sanctions package would be a major surprise, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made clear that any such decision must be taken in close cooperation with “our partners and friends” – which in this case primarily addresses the G7.
Lastly, the EU could resort to its “nuclear” sanctions option: confiscation of assets and secondary sanctions. Both are allowed in the US but would contradict fundamental EU values and norms. Yet it might not even be necessary to change the EU’s rules, as the mere contemplation of secondary sanctions would likely serve as a good deterrence. Publicised US government concerns about Russian Mir banking cards, resulting in prompt renunciation of the formerly accepted payment method by Turkey and several other countries, demonstrate that sanctions threats can pre-empt desired effects and render implementation unnecessary.
Emulating the US in this regard would be unprecedented and seems truly unthinkable for the EU. However, policymakers in Brussels pride themselves with having implemented several foreign policy decisions – for example, supporting Ukraine’s military through the European Peace Facility and drawing up the largest sanctions regime in the EU’s history within a few months – that were once unprecedented and indeed unthinkable, too.