BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union took a cautious approach to imposing sanctions against Moscow on Monday, targeting 21 people in Russia and Crimea while leaving open the possibility of adding harsher economic measures when EU leaders meet later this week.
Those targeted include politicians responsible for calling for and organizing Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, when 97 percent of voters decided the region should secede from Ukraine and join Russia. The EU says the referendum was illegal and does not recognize the result.
“More ... measures in a few days,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said on Twitter, after announcing the decision taken by EU foreign ministers in Brussels.
His Czech counterpart, Lubomir Zaoralek, said earlier that any decisions taken on Monday would be the “first set”.
“I would not rule out that this list can be widened at the next meeting of the Council,” he said, referring to an EU summit on Thursday and Friday.
European officials have said they are determined to punish Russia for its actions in Crimea, imposing sanctions including travel bans and asset freezes on those responsible. The United States was taking similar steps on Monday.
However, EU sanctions require unanimity among all 28 member states and there are several countries, including Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Spain and Portugal, that have reservations about moving too quickly.
As a result, Monday’s move was not as far-reaching as initially hoped. At the end of last week, the EU had drawn up a master list of 120-130 names for possible sanctions, which has now been whittled down. Some EU governments, including Poland, had pushed to add a few more names on Monday but failed to win sufficient backing.
One EU diplomat said that of the 21 targeted people, 10 were Russian politicians, three were military officials and eight were Crimeans.
The full list of names will be published on Monday evening when the travel bans and asset freezes take effect.
There are few signs that the threat of sanctions is having an impact on the ground in Crimea or on Russia, although the threat of sanctions has unnerved investors.
Officials in Crimea formally applied to join Russia on Monday and the head of the local parliament said Ukrainian military units on the peninsula would be disbanded.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will address a joint session of Russia’s parliament on Crimea on Tuesday, when it is possible the secession will be formalized.
If that happens, it is likely the EU will move to the next phase of travel bans and asset freezes as soon as leaders meet on Thursday, with the expanded list of names possibly including senior Russian political and military figures close to Putin.
Even then, it is not clear that Moscow has any intention of backing down or reversing course in Crimea, and there are indications that it could widen its influence in Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine, too.
The EU has said it will further increase the sanctions pressure if that happens, including imposing much more far-reaching trade and financial restrictions on Russia.
While it would be difficult to secure unanimous agreement within the EU for such a hard-hitting step, it may also be the only measure that would force Russia to reconsider. Wide-ranging financial sanctions would deal a powerful blow to Russian exports and business, while also harming Europe.
At that point, the concern is that the EU becomes locked in a damaging spiral of escalating sanctions and retaliation from Russia, with no one comfortable with where that could lead.
While steadily ratcheting up the sanctions threat, the EU is also urging Russia to negotiate, both directly with Ukraine and by allowing in observers and mediators.
In a sign that Putin may be prepared to respond to those calls, Russia on Monday backed the creation of an international “support group” to mediate the crisis.
But it said one goal of the group would have to include Ukraine recognizing Crimea’s secession, which is likely to be unacceptable both to Kiev and to Europe, the United States and most of the rest of the world.
Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Martin Santa, Phil Blenkinsop, Barbara Lewis and Luke Baker in Brussels; writing by Luke Baker; editing by Giles Elgood