The European Union slapped sanctions on a group of private Russian military contractors on Monday, after accusing the group of fomenting violence and committing human rights abuses in the Middle East, Africa, and Ukraine.
Following a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Liverpool this weekend, where the US and major allies warned the Kremlin of "massive" consequences if it invades Ukraine, the 27 EU ministers met Monday in Brussels.
They first agreed to slap asset freezes and travel bans on eight people involved with the Wagner Group, including founder Dmitry Utkin, and three energy companies linked to the group in Syria.
"The activities of this group reflect the Russian hybrid warfare. They represent a threat and create instability in a number of countries around the world," said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
Next, the EU ministers signalled their readiness to impose huge new measures targeting Russia's economy if a troop build-up near the Ukrainian border leads to direct military action.
"Allow me to say, once again, firmly that the European Union is standing united in support of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Borrell added.
"The ministers have been very clear today that any aggression against Ukraine will come with political consequences and with a high economic cost for Russia."
"We are globally coordinating with our transatlantic and like-minded partners," he went on.
Before the talks, Lithuania's Gabrielius Landsbergis stressed that the sanctions threat was a deterrent but that, if they proved necessary, they would have to be on an "unprecedented scale".
"The Wagner Group has recruited, trained, and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources, and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law," the EU headquarters expressed in a statement.
It accused those targeted of "serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, or in destabilising activities in some of the countries they operate in, including Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic."
EU lawmakers say the group should be treated as a "proxy organisation" for the Russian state.
France and Germany have also complained about the presence of Wagner Group fighters in Mali, to which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov replied that the company had a "legitimate" right to be in Mali because it was invited by the transitional government, and Lavrov insisted the Russian government is not involved.
Nord Stream 2 warnings from Germany
Berlin holds one of the most important cards in the sanctions deck if it decides that President Vladimir Putin's actions warrant blocking the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
Asked about the threat to Ukraine before heading to Brussels, Baerbock revealed that "in the event of further escalation, this gas pipeline could not come into service."
After the Brussels meeting, Baerbock insisted that Germany's position on the pipeline had been made clear, without repeating it, and said: "any action by Russia would have severe diplomatic consequences."
Separately, in a sign of Brussels' determination to address what it sees as the Kremlin's efforts to "destabilise" Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and several African countries, sanctions were slapped on Wagner.
Wagner is said to be financed by 60-year-old Saint Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has already been hit with EU and US sanctions for destabilising Libya and meddling in US elections.
Those sanctioned by the EU included Dmitry Utkin, a 51-year-old former lieutenant colonel in Russian military intelligence, once decorated by Putin and now said to be Wagner's commander and responsible for mercenary operations in Ukraine.
Utkin is accused of extrajudicial killings, including allegedly ordering a Syrian deserter to be tortured to death and filmed.
Alexander Kuzentsov, a 44-year-old Russian said to lead Wagner's first Attack and Reconnaissance Company under the call sign "Ratibor", was also accused of threatening the peace and security of Libya.
One of the last persons to be sanctioned was retired colonel Andrei Roshev, 68, a founding executive director of Wagner now commanding mercenary troops in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad's regime under the call sign "Siedoy".
United front against Russia
The talks on Monday helped the EU leaders prepare ahead of their meeting with the "Eastern Partnership" – Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – on Wednesday.
Belarus left the group after the EU accused Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of rigging his re-election.
However, Belarus's opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya will be in Brussels.
The EU said it wants to present its eastern neighbours with a united front against what it sees as Russia's destabilising meddling in the region.
But on the question of China – accused of persecuting the Uyghur minority, threatening Taiwan, and cracking down on freedoms in Hong Kong – there is less agreement between EU capitals.
The United States and some of Washington's allies have announced that they will not send diplomats or top officials to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, in protest against China's actions.
But Europe remains divided on the issue, with France dismissing talk of a diplomatic boycott as a small and useless measure.