Ukraine's foreign affairs minister has urged Brussels to apply "some sanctions" on Russia before an invasion takes place.
The European Union will refrain from slapping fresh sanctions on Russia as a way to prevent an invasion of Ukraine and will instead hold the line until a military attack is ordered by President Vladimir Putin.
The wait-and-see approach comes in response to Ukraine's explicit pleas for international action, amid increasing tensions at the border and intensifying shelling in the eastern parts of the country.
"We believe there are good and legitimate reasons to impose some of the sanctions now to demonstrate that the European Union is not only walking the walk about sanctions but is also walking the walk," said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign affairs minister, on Monday morning.
"There are plenty of decisions that the European Union can make now to send clear messages to Russia that this escalation will not be tolerated and Ukraine will not be left on its own."
Kuleba urged the bloc to go beyond "political signals" and offer "some very specific acts," which he did not specify. The representative made the call for action at the start of a meeting of EU foreign affairs in Brussels, which he attended as a guest to brief his counterparts on the latest developments of the standoff.
The situation at the border has never been more fraught: Washington now speaks of more than 190,000 Russian troops encircling Ukraine while Kyiv has denounced multiple ceasefire violations in the eastern front.
Russia continues to deny plans to invade Ukraine, despite the impressive display of military force and continued warnings by US intelligence that an incursion is imminent.
Western officials warn the shelling attacks in the Russian-controlled areas might be used as a pretext to carry out the invasion and topple the current pro-European Ukrainian government.
Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania's foreign affairs minister, expressed solidarity with Kuleba and said the worsening turn of events does in fact merit a stronger response from the EU.
"We have to really be very clear that the economic damage is already being done. There are constant cyberattacks and actual military damage because the contact line is being shelled constantly," Landsbergis, whose country shares a border with Russia, told Euronews.
"My proposal is to really see the situation as it is and send a very clear message to Moscow that this is not allowed, to say that we are not just waiting for an invasion as an actual trigger, but there are additional lower-level triggers that could trigger lower-level sanctions."
Landsbergis suggested the "high-level officials" behind the "false-flag operations" should be added to the existing list of EU sanctions, which have been in place since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But his counterparts, including Denmark's Jeppe Kofod, Spain's José Manuel Albares and Austria's Alexander Schallenberg, said diplomacy has not yet been exhausted and negotiations should continue before radical measures are applied. Ministers also insisted Russia must withdraw its troops from the border, show restraint and engage in meaningful dialogue.
"We’re hoping for the best but we’re preparing for the worst if Putin continues his provocations and disregard for diplomacy," said Kofod.
Upon leaving the meeting, Kuleba announced the EU and Ukraine had reached an agreement "in principle" to roll out an advisory training military mission in Ukraine. He explained the deployment will not amount to "combat forces" and practical details still need to be discussed.
"I also called on EU colleagues to grant Ukraine a European perspective," he said.
Sanctions pending unanimity
Kuleba's comment echoed the words of President Zelenskyy at the Munich Security Conference, where he asked Western countries to make the sanctions public in order to deter Russia from moving forward.
"We don't need your sanctions after the bombardment will happen and after our country will be fired at or after we will have no borders, or after we will have no economy," Zelenskyy said.
The entreaties were not enough to convince Josep Borrell, the EU's top diplomat, to change the agreed-upon roadmap: although the sanctions package is already prepared, it will not be applied as a pre-emptive measure.
"The work is done. We are ready," Borrell told reporters on Monday.
"We will continue supporting Ukraine at the most critical moment – if this happens," he added. "I hope and we're working [to ensure] the moment will not come."
Borrell said that a recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two separatist republics in eastern Ukraine, by the Russian government can also lead to penalties, although he appeared to imply a simple statement by the Kremlin might not be enough to secure the backing of all 27 member states.
"Certainly, if there is annexation, there will be sanctions. And if there is a recognition, I will put the sanctions on the table and the ministers will decide," the diplomat said.
Borrell also condemned the role played by Belarus in the crisis. The country is currently hosting thousands of Russian troops that experts fear could be employed to take Kyiv by force.
"Belarus is being dragged into the crisis. It's losing its sovereignty," he said. "Belarus is in a process of satellisation with respect to Russia."
The diplomat confirmed penalties will also be imposed on Belarus if the country facilitates an invasion of Ukraine. As soon as an attack begins, Borrell explained, he will convene an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers to vote on the sanctions, which have to be unanimously approved.
Over the past weeks, the European Commission has designed the retaliatory package in close contact with all the capitals to make sure unity is preserved and the economic impact is reduced as much as possible.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has previously said Russia will face "severe consequences" and "massive costs" in the event of a military incursion.
The sanctions regime "would limit the access of Russia to the financial markets of the European Union, and it would limit Russia's access to crucial goods and technology it needs and that cannot be easily supplied and replaced," von der Leyen said earlier this month.