EU diplomats must be increasingly creative in finding Russians to blacklist, having already designated 1,206 names.
Work on new sanctions accelerated this week amid fears that Russia is annexing parts of eastern Ukraine.
Fake independence referendums are due to begin this weekend in Russian-occupied regions and last four days. And Russia annexed Crimea just 48 hours after its fake referendum in 2014.
The sense of urgency has already prompted the EU to talk about activating an emergency protocol, called the Integrated Political Crisis Response, in which senior diplomats exchange intelligence.
And the new EU sanctions should be ready to be put in place soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin makes his decision.
The new visa ban and asset freeze blacklists are likely to include junior Russian officials and Ukrainian aides involved in the referendum circus, as well as junior Russian lawmakers, diplomatic sources said.
EU states are looking for ways to prevent companies from shipping Russian oil sold at above normal market value.
They also envision more Russian banks, imports of high-tech goods and economic sectors to hit.
But when it comes to individuals, “there are no big fish anymore,” an EU source said. “We already have the full collection of the oligarchs and everyone in the political and defense establishments,” they said.
Meanwhile, the only major Russian bank still not under sanctions is Gazprombank, but the EU needs it to stay open as it handles payments for Russian gas imports.
The Russian diamond industry is one of the few sectors still untouched by the previous seven rounds of Russian sanctions, but this has more symbolic than real importance for the Russian economy.
“We can sanction Russian unicorns if we want, but the problem is that they don’t exist,” another EU source said, referring to the few real targets left.
On the blacklist side, that means EU diplomats are also considering further banning Russian propagandists, such as pro-war cheerleaders in Russian media.
The more creative approach has its problems, however, said one of the EU sources. “Let’s make one thing clear: these are not real journalists,” the source said. “But still, the EU doesn’t like blacklisting media people. We support freedom of speech and expression,” they said.
For their part, Poland and the Baltic states lobbied to also fully confiscate billions of Russian financial assets frozen in Europe, but that was unlikely to happen due to German opposition, diplomats say. EU speaking to the Reuters news agency.
Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told his party members at a political event on Wednesday that the EU should remove sanctions against Russia altogether, according to pro-government Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet.
Energy prices would drop 50% overnight, he said. “The sanctions from Brussels have plunged Europe into an energy crisis,” Orbán also said on his Facebook page.
But few in Brussels expect him to veto the EU’s response to Putin’s carving up of Ukraine because of the severity of the escalation.
In a sign of the prevailing mood, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell used harsher rhetoric than ever to condemn Russia’s plans in an official statement after meeting the 27 foreign ministers on Wednesday of the EU on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Russia is responsible for “tremendous suffering” in Ukraine, Borrell said on behalf of the EU.
Ukraine had “the right to liberate” its territories,” he added. “We salute the courage and successes of the Ukrainian armed forces during the current counter-offensive.”
“Now it is clear that Russia wants to destroy Ukraine by any means,” Borrell also told reporters personally in New York.
“Although Putin tried to scare us with his last speech, he completely missed the mark,” former Ukrainian ambassador to the EU Kostiantyn Yelisieiev told EUobserver, referring to a Putin speech. Wednesday, in which the Russian leader spoke about the annexations and made nuclear threats.
“The Kremlin is toxic like never before,” Yelisieiev said.