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EU foreign ministers struggled on Monday to portray a united front against Russia, as tensions simmered behind the scenes over supplying weapons to Ukraine and over a proposed military training mission.
As the ministers gathered in Brussels for a meeting that included a conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken via video link, a split emerged between the EU and the U.S. over the evacuation of diplomats from Kyiv.
Meanwhile, the EUâ€™s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, insisted that the 27 member states and their allies were completely in lockstep on the need for a package of high-impact sanctions to be imposed on Russia in the event of an attack on Ukraine. But that cohesion was largely made possible by not discussing any specific details about the draft measures â€”Â delaying potentially fierce disagreements.
Borrell said that the secrecy was a strategic effort to keep Moscow guessing.
â€œPart of the deterrence is not to give information,â€ Borrell said at a news conference following the meeting. â€œSo donâ€™t worry, the measures will be taken and implemented at the appropriate moment â€”Â if it comes.â€
But privately, diplomats did not dispute the high likelihood of disagreements on penalties that might target the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, or cut Russia off from SWIFT, the global financial payments system. The one hope, they said, would be that the urgency of responding to an attack would convince individual countries to put aside their own interests.
Czech Foreign Minister Jan LipavskÃ½ said following the talks that there was â€œquite strong unityâ€ around the notion of sanctions as the strongest tool to address a possible continued escalation, but that â€œthereâ€™s a variety of ideasâ€ regarding â€œwhich sanctionsâ€ and â€œhow far we go.â€
â€œIt is clear that some nations, some states will be more affected than the others,â€ the Czech minister said, adding that this is an â€œongoing debate.â€
A senior Central European official, meanwhile, said that â€œthere is a unity that sanctions are necessaryâ€ but that â€œwhat sanctions specifically â€” remains to be seen.â€
Some EU officials and diplomats also expressed annoyance at the U.S. and the U.K. for beginning to remove some diplomatic personnel and their family members from Ukraine, calling it a premature step that was sowing panic and unsettling financing markets.
Borrell, at his news conference, insisted that the U.S. had not begun an evacuation, even though the State Department has ordered relatives of American embassy staffers to leave the country, while giving some diplomats the option to depart. And, in any event, Borrell said that EU countries did not see any reason to remove their own diplomats at this point.
â€œSecretary Blinken has told us that it was not an evacuation,â€ Borrell said, before turning to EU terminology to explain the situation, calling it â€œfree movement of people who are not crucial staff.â€
â€œThe ones who are not crucialÂ staff are free to decide to leave the country if they want,â€ Borrell said. â€œThis is not an evacuation.â€
He said the EU would not take such a step. â€œEven with this, letâ€™s say low-level precautionary measure, very, very low level, I think that itâ€™s completely agreement between us, between the member states, that not even this precautionary measure is needed,â€ Borrell said.
But even amid these disagreements, ministers said there was broad consensus about responding forcefully to Russia in the event of an attack or invasion.
â€œMy sense, my take of today is that there was a huge display of unity amongst Europeans but also Europeans together with the Americans,â€ Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said.
â€œOur joint preference was, is and will continue to be a diplomatic solution,â€ Hoekstra added. â€œAt the same time, deterrence is of the essence, and therefore it is necessary to unite on a very significant package of sanctions that we should have sooner rather than later, that we also should receive with unity.â€
Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan KorÄok said: â€œThereâ€™s unity that if red lines are crossed, then we have to respond with a robust package of sanctions.â€
Germany, in particular, has come under sharp criticism for its reluctance to provide weapons to Ukraine or even allow some other allies to supply weapons over which Germany retains authorization rights.
KorÄok, however, said that the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, had made â€œa very convincing and clear statementâ€ in support of responding forcefully to Russia with sanctions. KorÄok also said that Slovakia was not removing any diplomatic staff. â€œOurÂ diplomatic presence in KyivÂ is absolutely key because what we are seeking is a diplomatic solution and diplomats on the groundÂ are part of that,â€ he said.
In their written conclusions, the ministersâ€™ stated: â€œAny further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will haveÂ massive consequences and severe costs.â€
But there were other disagreements, including over the proposed military training mission for officers. Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain were said to be among the countries blocking the program.
In an effort to emphasize EU support for Ukraine, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Monday proposed a robust package of economic assistance, including â‚¬1.2 billion in macroeconomic aid, in the form of loans, and â‚¬120 million in grants.
Amid the continuing flurry of diplomatic activity, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met at alliance headquarters on Monday with Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto and Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde.
Earlier in the day, NATO announced that allies were moving additional ships, fighter jets, troops and other assets to the Eastern Flank as a response to the crisis with Russia.
â€œThe risk of conflict remains real,â€ Stoltenberg said at a brief appearance with the foreign ministers. â€œAnd we continue to call on Russia to de-escalate and choose the path of diplomacy.â€
Also on Monday, the U.S. said it placed roughly 8,500 military personnel on heightened alert to potentially deploy to Eastern Europe.
Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.