Western capitals are united in opposing linking progress in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine with the lifting of sanctions against Moscow, instead girding for long-term economic pressure against the Kremlin.
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators emerged from talks in Turkey on Tuesday with the exchange of draft peace proposals and a statement from Moscow that it would scale back its military operations against Kyiv, raising hope that negotiations were making progress.
But US and European officials voiced skepticism over Russia’s sincerity and commitment towards the peace talks, underlining that only a full ceasefire, troop withdrawal and return of captured territory to Ukraine would be enough to trigger discussions over lifting sanctions on Russia’s economy.
The detachment of potential sanctions relief for the Kremlin from possible outcomes of the peace talks comes as Ukraine said Russian forces continue to shell the outskirts of Kyiv and encircled cities in other parts of the country.
“The notion that you would reward Putin for occupying territory does not make sense. . . it would be very, very difficult to countenance ”said a senior EU official. “There’s a disconnect between these negotiations, what really happens on the ground, and the total cynicism of Russia.”
“I think we need to give them a reality check,” the official added.
The comment echoes that of Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, on Wednesday, when he told MPs it was “certainly inconceivable that any sanctions could be taken off simply because there is a ceasefire”. London was making sure there was “no backsliding on sanctions by any of our friends and partners around the world”, he added.
Western countries are discussing both enforcement of existing sanctions and drawing up potential additional measures to increase pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, senior EU and US officials told the Financial Times. They were not discussing a possible timeframe for easing sanctions, they said.
Any talk of lifting restrictions would come only after Russia reversed its aggression against Ukraine, and only then in co-ordination with all allies including Ukraine, a senior US Treasury official said.
President Joe Biden told the 27 EU leaders at a summit last week in Brussels that “any notion that we are going to be out of this in a month is wrong”, and that the EU needed to prepare for a long-term pressure campaign, said a person who attended the meeting.
A White House official said Biden may not have said those exact words but he “did emphasize the need for unity at NATO, G7 and the EU over the long term, and the importance of continuing to co-ordinate closely on actions like sanctions and of staying together since the effects will be felt over time ”.
EU officials said there had been “no debate” on possible “off-ramps” – or face-saving ways to de-escalate – for Putin in response to apparent progress during Turkey-hosted peace talks.
Russia’s deputy defense minister on Tuesday said Moscow would “dramatically” scale back its military activities in the Kyiv area and focus troops on fighting in the country’s east. Such a move – not yet observed on the ground – would probably be the result of Russia’s failure to break Ukrainian defenses around the capital and successful counter-attacks against Russian positions, western defense officials said.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said attacks in other parts of the country had not abated. “Yes, we can call positive the signals we hear from the negotiating platform, but these signals do not silence the explosion of Russian shells,” he said on Tuesday.
While Russian troops have failed to make inroads into Kyiv, they have advanced in southern Ukraine, taking control of the Sea of Azov coastline, and seizing territory along the country’s eastern border.
Captured territory is not mentioned in drafts discussed during the peace talks in Turkey, which focus instead on Ukraine’s neutrality and security guarantees for Kyiv from global powers.
Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary, said in a newspaper interview on Sunday that sanctions against Russia could be lifted if Putin withdrew from Ukraine and committed to “no further aggression”, the most prominent statement by a senior G7 minister regarding a possible scenario for lifting sanctions against Moscow.
Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO deputy secretary-general, said she was concerned Russia could use potential peace agreements to lobby individual western countries for sanctions relief.
“What worries me most is how clever the Russians can be in terms of divide and conquer tactics. This could become relevant when we gain some momentum in the peace process and there is pressure to release some of the sanctions, ”said Gottemoeller, now a lecturer at Stanford University. “Keeping the EU together in that world will be a delicate and difficult matter.”
The bloc said in a joint declaration last week that it “remains ready to. . . move quickly with further co-ordinated robust sanctions on [Russia] to effectively thwart Russian abilities to continue the aggression ”.
As one senior EU diplomat said: “Let’s remember that you need unanimity for both imposing sanctions, and for lifting them.”
Additional reporting by Sam Fleming in Brussels, Laura Hughes in London and James Politi in Washington