March 28, 2018 / 4:07 PM / 6 months ago

EU to hold line on Russia sanctions after diplomatic expulsions

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - After most European Union states expelled Russian diplomats over the Salisbury spy poisoning, sources in Brussels expect the bloc to hold the line on Russia sanctions for now.

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

EU foreign ministers will discuss the bloc’s troubled ties with Moscow on April 16, a broad debate planned long before a former Russian spy was found slumped on a public bench together with his daughter in the English town of Salisbury on March 4.

But, diplomats and officials said, any appetite that might have been there at the turn of the year to soften the bloc’s line and seek more “selective engagement” with Moscow has dissipated after the toxin attack, which Britain, followed by the rest of the EU, blames on Moscow.

“Just several weeks ago, the Austrians were ready to join the traditional Russia doves in asking for more engagement with Russia. Now, that would not be possible,” said a senior diplomat from a country traditionally hawkish on Moscow.

The West responded to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia by expelling more than 100 Russians as undercover spies, including 60 sent home from the United States.

Nineteen of the EU’s 28 states have told Russian diplomats to leave, and three others recalled their own ambassadors. Only Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Portugal, Slovenia and Austria have not joined the coordinated action.

The biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War came days after the fourth anniversary of Moscow’s military annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine.

Back then, the EU responded by slapping sanctions on Russia, which it stepped up as Moscow backed rebels in east Ukraine. They include curbs on doing business and a blacklist of officials.

“The ball is now in Moscow’s court, we’ll see if they respond by kicking out as many EU diplomats,” said another senior EU person. “We will discuss accordingly but there seems to be no appetite to reopen the economic sanctions.”

An EU official dealing with the matter said the expulsions already establish an EU “red line”, meaning the bloc would not go any further for now.

The EU’s economic sanctions, which target Russia’s energy, defence and financial sectors, are in place until the end of July any an extension requires unanimity of all 28 EU states.

Despite the bloc’s traditional split on how to handle Russia, most recently seen in a clash between two of the bloc’s top officials on whether to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his fourth presidential term, the sanctions have been extended every six months since first being imposed in mid-2014.

The sources said the bloc could consider smaller changes to the sanctions regime, either looking at longer extensions of one year, or adding a few names to the EU’s blacklist over Russia’s presidential elections earlier this month, which were also held in the annexed Crimea.

But mostly they expected no substantial changes from the April meeting, with another senior EU diplomat saying: “We have sent a very clear and strong signal. Now we sit and wait to see what happens next.”

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Peter Graff

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