BRUSSELS – European Union countries on Monday accused Russia's military of committing war crimes in Ukraine, but appeared unlikely to target the country's energy sector with sanctions soon despite a clamor across Europe for those responsible for attacks on civilians to be held to account.
With civilian deaths mounting in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock highlighted the increase in Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and theaters.
The “courts will have to decide, but for me these are clearly war crimes," Baerbock said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers in Brussels, said that “what’s happening in Mariupol is a massive war crime. Destroying everything, bombarding and killing everybody in an indiscriminate manner. This is something awful.”
The encircled southern city on the Sea of Azov has seen some of the worst horrors of the war. City officials say that at least 2,300 people have died in the siege, with some buried in mass graves.
The International Criminal Court in the Netherlands is gathering evidence about any possible war crimes in Ukraine, but Russia, like the United States, doesn't recognize the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said his country is “certainly open to other mechanisms for accountability in terms of the atrocities that are taking place in Ukraine right now.”
Coveney said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine "is driving a fury across the European Union within the public as to why can’t we stop this.” He said Europeans “want people held to account for the decisions taken and the brutality that we have seen.”
Coveney expects that a new round of EU sanctions will be drawn up soon, possibly by the time U.S. President Joe Biden arrives in Brussels on Thursday for talks with European leaders at NATO and EU headquarters.
Notorious for their often slow responses, EU nations have rallied since the invasion began on Feb. 24 to slap sanctions on hundreds of people, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, senior ministers and pro-Kremlin oligarchs.
Several “entities” – companies, banks, airlines and ship builders – have also been hit in near record time. But the issue of imposing restrictive measures on Russian energy remains extremely sensitive, given the dependence of many EU countries on Russian oil and natural gas.
Coveney said energy sanctions are unlikely to be on the table this week.
A group of countries led by Germany wants a pause on new sanctions for now, amid concerns about high energy prices and fears that Russia might halt gas exports to Europe. Some also want to save sanction ammunition for any new and major war atrocity, like the use of chemical weapons.
But Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, whose country borders Russia and Belarus, warned against “sanctions fatigue.”
“We cannot get tired imposing sanctions. We cannot get tired, offering assistance and help to Ukraine,” he said. Landsbergis said the EU must target oil, a major source of revenue for Russia .
He said the EU must also start thinking about what kind of attack by Russia would constitute a “red line” for tougher measures. The shelling of cities and civilians, he said, doesn't appear to be enough to persuade some member countries “but somewhere there, there has to be one.”
Landsbergis also said the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia need their defenses bolstered by partner countries.
“We need to see more equipment, and first of all the actual defense plans (for) the Baltic countries that would reflect the changed strategic reality of the region,” he told reporters.
The ministers did endorse a second tranche of 500 million euros ($552 million) to help buy weapons and other aid for Ukraine, Borrell said.
Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.
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